Review: Payback: Straight Up (Brian Helgeland, 2006)

by Matt Strackbein

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night panicked that people might not realize this movie has a director’s cut, which happens to be way better than the original. I’ll put it this way, when I first saw the movie Payback (1999) I hated it, but years later, when I saw the director’s cut, it became one of my favorite movies. I’m not kidding when I say the 2006 version is a 100% completely different movie as far as taste is concerned. What began as an adaptation of Richard Stark’s first Parker novel, The Hunter (1962), became a stylized, viewer-friendly, bubblegum-flavored waste of film. I love the Parker book series, and I even kinda dug the first movie adaptation of The Hunter, called Point Blank (1967) starring Lee Marvin, but I hadn’t absorbed any of the source material when I sat in the theater spitting at the screen in ’99. I was a bit more than surprised at Mel Gibson’s version of Parker, (switched to Porter in the movie) when I realized who, and what, he was supposed to be depicting. I mean you could tell he was doing his job well enough as an actor, but the rest of it was a complete fraud as adaptations go, and just a dumb movie all together.

Basically, this was one of those classic examples of a studio making so many changes that the director, Brian Helgeland, bailed on the project before it was released. A new third Act was added with a new character, scenes were taken out or reworked, a blue color-filter was added, campy voiceover narration was included and, in the end, the movie was so harmless it felt more like Lethal Weapon 5 than a new, edgier direction for Mel Gibson. All of the ugly details are documented in the DVD’s Special Features, and, frankly, that’s as much as I want to say about the whole thing, except to note that Gibson is happy with both versions, apparently. I think that’s relevant because he wasn’t just the lead actor. Gibson’s own production company, Icon Productions, was one of the studios behind the movie. But, look, the point of this review is to let people know that there is a very well crafted piece of cinema available that folks may not be aware of. There’s all new scoring, no color filter, original scenes were added back in, new scenes were taken out, and the completely unnecessary voiceover was removed. The “straight up” version is the movie that audiences deserved whether it’s what they wanted at the time or not, and as I said, it has since become one of my favorites. I can watch it over and over.

One more thing I like to mention when talking about this movie…I put it in a category I made up called Grey Suit Films. I’ve watched a lot of tough guy movies, and I’ve noticed many of them wear essentially the same light grey suits, what’s commonly known as a Glen Plaid, short for Glenurguhart –  a place in Scotland where the fabric comes from. Anyway, it seems to be a rite of passage for an actor playing a tough guy, albeit to different degrees, or so I’ve noticed. In Payback, when we first see Porter, there’s no telling where he’s coming from or what he’s been up to. Everyone in the movie thought he was dead, so when he shows up, walking into town in a disheveled light grey suit, you don’t know anything about him. But, if you’ve recognized the telltale sign, the Glen Plaid – just like Robert DeNiro in Heat (1995), Sean Connery and Roger Moore as James Bond, Pacino in The Godfather II (1974), and even Lee Marvin in the aforementioned Point Blank to name a few – then you would know the only thing you need to know about the guy…he’s tough, and probably shouldn’t be messed with. Maybe the best thing about this director’s version is how that same attitude holds true all the way through to the end credits. Porter is a bad guy, a career criminal. He lives by a particular code, but he’s still a sociopath. I don’t like him because he’s a cool bad guy, or because he seems like a nice guy in bad guy clothing. I don’t like him because I like the actor playing him either. No, I like him because he makes no apology for what he is. That’s how movies, (and art in general), should be created in my opinion – without compromise. That’s why I want people to know about this version. If you decide to watch it, just make sure it’s the 2006 edition, that’s the good one.

Matt Strackbein is an Apparel-Designer working in the Outdoor and Ski industry. He is also a self-published comic book creator, as well as an accomplished Letterhack with over 200 hundred printed letters in comic book letter columns.