February 8, 1999 -- "Payback" is a movie that further pushes the limits of anti-hero envelope. In my case, it pushes the envelope past the breaking point.
Mel Gibson stars as a crook named Porter who is shot in the back and left to die by his double-crossing wife and partner. He survives to seek revenge and the $70,000 stolen from him (after he stole it from somebody else). Porter tracks down his wife, who promptly dies from a drug overdose. He then tracks down the double-crossing, sleazy, masochistic partner, Val Resnick (played with a real flair by Gregg Henry).
Porter wants his money and he stubbornly pursues it, killing numerous people who get in his way. Tough guys tell him "You just signed your death warrant." Yeah, sure. Been there, done that. Porter keeps working his way up the Mafia ladder until he gets the attention of the top guy, who is played by Kris Kristofferson. He kidnaps the crime boss's son and holds him for ransom. The crime boss tells him "You just signed your death warrant." Instead of that, the crime boss locks Porter up in a place from which he can escape. Pretty clever. How do crime bosses ever make any money at all. They are so stupid.
In addition to dumb, poorly-guarded crime bosses there are various criminals, dumb, crooked cops and dumb hit men who can't shoot straight, all chasing Porter, who outwits, outfights and outshoots them all. A couple of the murders committed by Porter are execution-style. Both of these are cold-blooded murders committed with and handgun. That was a little too much for me. I can't really identify with that kind of violence. It used to be that in most Hollywood movies the hero only killed people in self defense. Now it is considered O.K. to kill people if they deserve it, or if it is convenient, or fun. The hero, or anti-hero in this case, is judge, jury and executioner. In this movie, the killings are done for effect. I didn't particularly like the effect.
Killings that are done without a moral context, or without any kind of reckoning for the mind-numbing damage normally done to the killer's psyche, in short, killings portrayed without any kind of personal or legal consequences are bad messages to send to the target audience of this kind of film: teenage males. One consequence of this kind of storytelling is the real life nutty fan of "Pulp Fiction" who started shooting at cars with a rifle. When arrested, he said he was just practicing for a cross-country killing spree he had planned. In real life, this psycho was arrested. In the movies, he'd probably get away with it, so I question the validity of the "reality" argument made by those who defend violence in movies.
There is nothing remotely realistic about "Payback," any two-bit crook trying to do what Porter does in this movie would be killed in very short order. Despite that, Gibson is charming when he's not being a murdering psychopath. James Coburn also has a good bit part as a crime boss. The finale of the film is very cleverly done and there are some funny bits along the way, but it was just too bloody and heartless for me. This film rates a C+.
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