Hubba, hubba, hubba. That’s the catch phrase that runs through “Payback,” a verbal throwback to a simpler place and time. There’s nothing simple about “Payback,” and all of the characters seem to running out of or are on borrowed time.

Based on the 1967 John Boorman film “Point Blank” starring Lee Marvin, which was itself based on Richard Stark’s novel “The Hunter,” “Payback” is one vicious action film, a giddy combination of non-stop violence and film noir.

There are no good guys in “Payback.” Just varying levels of bad guys. The hookers don’t have hearts of gold, and the hero is so hell bent on getting his money back from the mob that he’s willing to kill any one who gets in his way. “Payback” begins with one of those classic film noir moments.

Set to the jazzy, guitar driven strains of Chris Boardman’s score and captured by Ericson Core’s cobalt blue cinematography, the film begins with a back room doctor removing three bullets from the back of a man. It’s a nasty little moment in a film filled with many nasty little moments.

The guy on the table is Porter. He’s a professional thief who happened to get involved with a double-crossing partner who set him up and then left him for dead.

While not nearly as hard driven nor as hard boiled as the Boorman film, Helgeland’s debut behind the camera is a tight-fisted exercise in wall-to-wall violence and star power.

Mel Gibson is absolutely smashing as Porter, an anti-hero who can take it as well as he can give it. Porter is the kind of role Gibson excels at, a man who sets his own rules and isn’t afraid to do what ever it takes to abide by them. While he’s more disarming than Marvin was in “Point Blank,” there’s also a cold, silent side to Gibson’s Porter. It only takes one encounter with Porter to know that you can take him by his word.

The word is revenge, and that’s what Porter is looking for after his friend Val (Gregg Henry) and his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) double-crossed him on a hit on the Asian mob. Healed and anxious to collect his share of the loot ($70,000), Porter starts making the rounds, looking up old friends who are surprised to learn that he is still alive.

First on his dance card is Lynn, who has become a heroin junkie and is barely hanging on to life. An encounter with Lynn’s dealer leads Porter to a small time mob liaison named Stegman (David Paymer), who happens to be entertaining two crooked cops (Bill Duke, Jack Conley).

Not only are the cops interested in Porter’s payday, they are surprised that Stegman is dealing in heroin and hasn’t cut them in on the business. It seems the more people Porter encounters, the more people want to see him dead.

Before long, he has the mob, Val, the Asian mob and the crooked cops on his tail, all wanting a piece of his $70,000. Things really heat up when Porter kills low-level mobster Carter (William Devane), upsetting the hierarchy, played by Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn.

Porter is forced to turn to and rely on high class call girl Rosie (Maria Bello) for help. Once Rosie’s bodyguard, Porter still carries a flame for his former client. She later admits that she would have given up the business if he asked her to.

Thanks to the sparse yet powerful screenplay by Helgeland and Terry Hayes, we learn just enough about each of the characters to care for and understand their motivations. There’s no room here for long, winded speeches. Helgeland understands the parameters of an action film and stays within them.

Once the story is set into motion, “Payback” never lets up. It’s one explosive encounter after another. While some of the plot mechanics don’t work as well as others, the set-ups and payoffs are extremely effective and fulfilling.

The cast is uniformly good, especially the spunky Bello, who proves she’s as tough as she is beautiful. Kristofferson and Coburn seem to be having a good time being bad, while Lucy Alexis Liu is a kick as Pearl, Val’s sadomasochistic girlfriend who gives as good as she gets. This lady gives new meaning to the term kitten with a whip. Whip it hard.

Filled with one gut wrenching moment after another, and definitely not for the feint of heart (the hammer to the toe scene is excruciating), “Payback” is solid entertainment for adults who like their action piled on hard and high. There’s also a fair amount of macabre humor in an attempt to add some levity to the proceedings. You won’t be disappointed. Wear steel toe boots.



Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, William Devane, Gregg Henry, David Paymer, Deborah Kara Unger, Lucy Alexis Liu in a film directed by Brian Helgeland. Rated R. 110 Min.


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