February 12, 1999

At The Movies: "Payback"

By Ted Anthony

Porter (Mel Gibson) robs from lowlifes, steals change from panhandlers and kidnaps teen-agers. He pinches badges from cops and puts them in the hands of guys he kills. And, it seems, he has no first name. A thoroughly unsavory character.

But here's the rub: While Porter's a bad, bad man, everything around him is worse.

That's the premise of ``Payback,'' a pleasantly surprising piece of movie fun that follows Porter around an anachronistic Chicago (is it 1999? 1975? 1948? Hard to tell) as he fights to reclaim $70,000 that was stolen from him by a fellow thug who left him for dead.

Payback works on just about every level. It has quirky characters galore, all with sundry facial tics and eyes that dart about. It has a fast-paced script and a well-placed sense of when to be over-the-top (guns are called ``roscoes'') and when to be serious. While unrepentantly violent, it also is, in a strange, underworld way, quite humanistic.

Gibson's just-below-the-surface smarm, which typically comes down on the side of goodness and nobility, does no such thing here. And it serves him well. The more oily he gets, the more honorable an anti-hero he manages to become. He's weary of the violence he has to inflict, and just when he's about to fall from grace completely, his inner good guy emerges.

``You're not going to kill me, are you?'' whines Stegman, a small-time hood played with weaselly relish by David Paymer (``Mr. Saturday Night'').

``Not in front of these kids,'' Porter replies.

The characters are worthy of a good Raymond Chandler yarn, transplanted to Chicago. A troika of mob leaders is played with great gusto by William Devane at his toothy best, the ever-craggy Kris Kristofferson and, in an unbilled role, a malevolent but perpetually exasperated James Coburn.

Gregg Henry is terrifying and pathetic as Val, the ruthless mid-level mobster who steals from Porter to pay back the syndicate and becomes Porter's obsession. Maria Bello (``ER'') is haunting as an ethereal hooker whom Porter turns to for comfort and safe haven. And Bill Duke and Jack Conley are entertainingly threatening as two cops as well-dressed as they are corrupt.

Stealing the show, though, is Lucy Liu (the frosty Ling from Fox's ``Ally McBeal'') as Pearl, a hotheaded Chinese gang leader/dominatrix who's as quick with her fist as she is with her tongue. Liu is clearly an actress on the cusp of big-time stardom.

The whole look of ``Payback,'' especially Richard Hoover's production design, helps make the movie provocative and memorable. The city itself is a character, and though the movie was filmed in Chicago, the filmmakers say they were trying to create an Anytown look - a gritty urban setting that wasn't quite Chicago, wasn't quite New York, wasn't quite LA. They succeeded.

They used no cars made after 1989. Costume designer Ha Nguyen outfitted the characters in leather jackets and tacky mob suits evocative of a ``Starsky and Hutch'' episode. And ``Super 35'' film stock produces a grainier, grittier look. A score by Chris Boardman also accentuates the cross-generational feel with music that transcends eras. Director-screenwriter Brian Helgeland's adaptation of Richard Stark's novel reflects his experience in co-writing the ``L.A. Confidential'' screenplay; the same well-conceived characterization and dialogue shines.

``Payback,'' unlike such recent Gibson action vehicles as ``Ransom,'' is a great ride - a textured tale of comedy, conniving and accursed lives, dark and whimsical at the same time.

``Payback,'' a Paramount film, is directed by Helgeland from a script he co-wrote with Terry Hayes. It is rated R.

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