Payback

PaybackDirector: Brian Helgeland (and reshoots by John Myhre)
Starring: Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, James Coburn, Kris Kristoferson, Willaim Devane, Bill Duke, Lucy Liu, David Paymer, Deborah Kara Unger, Jack Conley
Music: Chris Boardman
Based on the novel ‘The Hunter’ by Donald E. Westlake (under the pseudonym Richard Stark).

The book, The Hunter on which this film is based, was previously filmed as John Boorman’s classic sixties crime film, Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin. When I first heard that they were remaking it, I was pretty disgusted. There is certainly nothing wrong with the original. Why remake it? I saw it as another example of Hollywood’s lack of imagination.

When I finally saw Payback I wasn’t too impressed. To begin with, it’s opening scene features a bullet riddled Mel Gibson lying on a table. The dodgy doctor, who is about to patch him up, takes a long, long swallow from a glass of scotch, then refills the glass. This time he drops his operating tools (scalpels and the like) into the glass. At the time of viewing I had just finished reading Mickey Spillane’s The Black Alley. In the book, Mike Hammer has been shot up (again), and has to be patched up by an alcoholic ex-doctor. You know the kind, the ones you have been crossed off the medical register, because they botched an operation and the patient died. Now they drink to forget. Added to that, the next book I started reading was Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, in which Jason Bourne is patched by a drunken doctor. Clichés are a funny thing. Sometimes you don’t notice them until you are hit over the head two or three times in a row.

For me, at that time, another ‘drunken doctor’ story device was an unwelcome cliché. And let’s face it, it’s a hoary old chestnut to begin with, featured in numerous crime films from the 1940’s (the Humphrey Bogart movie, Dark Passage springs to mind).

Then I thought back to Point Blank and tried what recall how Lee Marvin had recovered from the bullet wounds. Actually we don’t see how Marvin got patched up. In fact we don’t see how he got off Alcatraz Island (for those who haven’t seen Point Blank, that’s where Marvin’s character is double-crossed and shot). Naturally for a tough guy like Lee Marvin, no explanation is necessary. It’s a given that he will survive.

That brings us back to Payback. On my first viewing my vision was cloudy by the crap clichéd opening. Added to that Gregg Henry and Lucy Liu’s characters have a very weird, violent sexual relationship going on. It added an element of sleaze to the film that wasn’t necessary. Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy the film too much.

But years have passed, and I sat down to watch Payback again. This time, I just let the film wash right over me. It’s been a few years since I have seen Point Blank, so Lee Marvin’s long shadow has diminished somewhat, and I know the film is a clichéd mess, so all that’s left to do is to enjoy the film for what it is…a piece of B-grade trash, with an A-grade budget. And I must confess I did enjoy the film, but I looked at it more as a quasi film-noir, rather than a remake. And hey, maybe appropriating ‘noir’ elements like the drunken doctor were in keeping with the type of film they were making.

So what’s it all about? Mel Gibson is Porter (no first name). Porter is a career criminal who steals things. He teams up with Val Resnick (Gregg Henry) to steal a suitcase full of money from the members of a Chinese numbers racket. Porter and Resnick’s plan works to perfection and they get away clean with $140,000. Porter is expecting a half share totalling $70,000. This is where things go wrong for Porter. Porter’s wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), who had been driving the getaway car, shoots her husband in the back a few times (talk about a messy divorce!) Porter is left for dead, and Lynn drives of with Resnick who had pre-arranged the whole double cross. It seems Resnick needed all the money to pay off a local crime syndicate.

Six months later, Porter has healed and wants his money back – all $70,000, which he feels he had earned. And Porter is prepared to intimidate, beat or kill anyone to get it. The rest of the film is devoted to Porter’s dogged determination in retrieving his money.

As I mentioned at the top, I haven’t seen the Director’s Cut, but all reports indicate that it is a very different beast to the one we have here. Here we have a quasi film noir revenge movie. The Director’s Cut apparently draws it’s inspiration from the early seventies crime dramas that featured tough anti-heroes. Apparently the decision was made to re-shoot and re-edit the film in 1999, because it was believed that the viewing public weren’t ready to see Mel’s nasty side. I’d love to see it, but so far it hasn’t made it to this part of the world. But until then, I guess this isn’t as bad as I first thought. It’s a serviceable crime thriller, with Mad Mel being a little bit nastier than usual.

Payback

Comeback

Author: Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (Reprint edition)
Published: 1997

I have a hand-written list on the fridge of items that I should own, but don’t. Mostly it’s mainstream films that I have never bothered to pick up. They are easy to find, and often turn up on TV. Generally, these are the items that I am almost embarrassed to say that I don’t have a copy of. For example, I do not own any of the Terminator films. Now I love the Terminator. I went and saw the original about four times at various cinemas across the state. But I don’t have a copy of any of them (I, II, III or Salvation). But I have no doubt they will come into my life again, and at that time I will cross them off the list.

Funnily enough, there is only one book on the list (and it is still on the list). It is The Hunter, by Richard Stark. Point Blank is one of my favourite films, and I find it embarrassing that I have never read the book. But I always keep my eye out for it. I know in this modern world, it is easy enough to get on the web – but I am kind of old fashioned when it comes to books. I like scrounging through second hand book shops. Anyway, the thing is, I have never found a copy.

But, the other day, in the centre-court of my local shopping-town there was a book sale, and one of the titles going cheap was Comeback. I almost didn’t pick it up – but then thought, ‘David – you’ve had The Hunter on your list for so long now, why don’t you just get Comeback. Try Richard Stark out. See if you like him. If you do, then continue to search for The Hunter.

So that’s how Comeback came into my life – and my introduction to the character Parker (He doesn’t have a first name.). And I thought it was a really good book. The first three-quarters where damn good, it is only towards the end, that the story sort of fizzles out. But talking to fellow Melbournite, Andrew Nette, from Pulp Curry – a man well versed in all things criminal, and a man who knows his Parker – he suggests go to the start of the series, written in the early 1960s. Read the early books. And I will.

But today, let’s briefly look at Comeback, which was the first Parker novel in 23 years (the last being Butcher’s Moon in 1974). Parker is a career criminal, and as the story opens, he has teamed up with George Liss, Ed Mackey to rob William Archibald. Archibald is a big time TV evangelist, and he holds Christian Crusades at football stadiums, where his flock attend and hand over large amounts of cash in donations.

Parker and his team intend to relieve Archibald of this money. And they have help too. A guy on the inside, named Tom Carmody. Carmody is actually a good-guy, not a crook. He has simply become frustrated with Archibald’s lifestyle. That is to say, Archibald doesn’t use the money for the betterment of his flock and society. He uses the money to live high on the hog.

So Carmody teams up with some crooks to teach Archibald a lesson. And Carmody intends to use his share, to do some actual good. As you probably can imagine, Carmody, is way over his head. And during the robbery is knocked out by Liss.

Parker, Liss and Mackey make their getaway, and hole up waiting for the heat to die down. But Liss is the type who doesn’t play well with others. He tries to steal all the loot for himself, and shoot Parker and Mackey. Luckily Parker had the foresight to unload all the weapons beforehand.

Liss flees, rightfully fearing retribution from his colleagues. But he doesn’t go too far. He didn’t get what he came for – the money. And so he watches and waits, looking for an opportunity to step into the picture once more and claim, what he believes is rightfully his.

As I alluded to up above, the majority of the book is fast paced and gripping to read. It is only the final physical confrontation between Liss and Parker that lets the story down. It is not helped by the fact, there is no doubt that Parker will win, so there’s a lack concern about his fate – which is a shame because the setup is so good.

Don’t get me wrong, I would still recommend this book – but if you are like me, and are new to the world of Parker, then maybe we should go back to the beginning and take it from the top.

Comeback