Payback, Mel Gibson's newest film (he stars but does not direct this time), is really quite amazing. And not necessarily in a good way, although I have to admit I did enjoy it. After all, it's entertaining, and quite funny, with some clever plot twists, a neat main character, some good actors (Gibson is fine, but Coburn is the one who really stands out; even though he only has a bit part as one of the bad guys, he reads every line perfectly), one or two smart lines (although in general the screenplay is pretty poor, and very derivative of other action flicks), and a great soundtrack. But there are other things about it that are deeply disturbing, so that even though I was entertained, I walked out of the theater feeling guilty and kind of uneasy.

     Many filmmakers work on the basic principle that America enjoys sadomasochism. And they make lots of money, because they're right. A lot of you may not like to admit it, but we get a real thrill out of watching things explode, and watching people beating up or shooting at other people. I only like it when it's fake, but some people like it even when it's real; if you don't believe me, check out a series of movies called Faces of Death, or turn on Fox and watch one of the hundreds of specials they've got about real life violence ("World's Most Violent Animal Attacks," "World's Most Scary Police Chases," etc.). They don't make this stuff for nothing; they make it because a lot of people like to watch it. So Payback isn't doing anything new; as I said above, it's rather derivative of many other films. Payback is just the first film I've seen to take the S&M thing so far, and to present it with so little subtlety. It's also one of the first films I've seen to try to make S&M funny. The weird and slightly disturbing thing is, it succeeds.

     The story goes like this: Mel Gibson's character is a robber named Porter. He and his partner in crime, Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), steal $140,000 from some other criminals. The first weird thing that happens is, they actually get away with it. This is not a robbery-gone-awry movie, which in itself is quite a relief. The only thing that goes wrong is, as they're about to split the money, fifty-fifty, Porter is betrayed by Val and his wife and left for dead. Of course, he survives, recuperates and returns for revenge. Now here's the second weird thing: Porter insists not only on killing his betrayer (just Val, not the wife; she neatly removes herself by ODing on bad drugs), but on getting back the exact amount of money that he's due: $70,000. He wants no more, and no less. And before he kills Val, we learn that Val is a sadomasochist who has a girlfriend of the same persuasion (Pearl, played by Lucy Liu). Several scenes rather graphically illustrate their little hobby. But not in a disgusting or repulsive way; it's supposed to be funny, and it is--the theater was filled with laughter during these scenes.

     The catch phrase of this movie is "Get ready to root for the bad guy," and in a way it's pretty accurate. Porter is really only nice to one person: his ex-girlfriend (during the course of the film the "ex" is, of course, removed from that phrase), Rosie (Maria Bello), who is the stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold, a mythic character that has appeared in hundreds of American films, and continues to reappear--we seem nearly as obsessed with her as we are with S&M. But unlike his girlfriend, Porter does not have a heart of gold. He's not like the traditional movie hero who always offers a hand to the guy dangling off the cliff, even if that guy is his worst enemy. Porter just kills anybody that gets in his way, and when they offer to help him, he shoots them in the face. In fact, he basically kills or physically and/or emotionally batters everybody in the film, including himself (and excepting only Rosie, as I said above). Admittedly, Mel Gibson usually gets himself beat up pretty badly in all of his films, but here it seems like he's really asking for it. In one sequence, a real wince-fest, the big bad guy demands to know where Porter has put his son (that's right, Porter stoops to kidnapping a kid and using him for the purposes of extortion); when he doesn't answer, they torture him by slamming a hammer down on his toes. He loses two toes, not because he has to, but simply because...well, for no good reason, since he ends up lying to them anyway.

     So the big question is, why does he put himself through all this? Porter's motives are unclear. It's easy to understand why he wants to kill Val; Val betrayed and almost killed him, not to mention beating his (ex-)girlfriend nearly to death. But why does Porter insist on getting back that money, and exactly the right amount of money? Why does he put himself through all this killing and torture for just $70,000? Many people in the film ask him this question, but he never answers. Is it a symbol for his vengeance? Must he have it to attain perfect retribution? That's the most obvious explanation; the title seems to suggest it. But Porter could easily have stolen more money from somewhere else. He seems determined instead to get back his money in the most difficult and violent way possible. He takes on a huge criminal organization known alternately as The Outfit and The Syndicate. The rich leaders of this group are hidden in well- guarded high rises; they have connections on the police force; they have an army of violent men at their service. Porter takes them all on; he kills, beats, kidnaps, is tortured, and nearly gets himself and his girlfriend killed in a thousand different ways. And all, seemingly, just for the fun of it. And that's what's scary. It is fun.

Jim Genzano

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