The Alternate Ending DVD Review: Payback – Straight Up: The Directors Cut
Posted by Dave Tomlinson on 04.17.2007
Director Brian Helgeland certainly gets his!
I’m back again. Did anyone miss me? Is anyone reading this? I hope so since I’m having fun writing these reviews, they really make me think a different way about movies I originally viewed simply as entertainment. As always any and all feedback is appreciated.
The term “directors cut” gets thrown around a lot in Hollywood these days. It seems like every third film on the rack and DVD Mecca Best Buy is a newly repackaged director’s cut, special edition, collectors’ edition, or some cutesy play on words from the movie. Generally speaking, this is just re-release of the same movie for the studio to make a few extra bucks. Imagine my surprise then, when I found that the new edition of “Payback”, one of my favorite gritty crime noir films from a few years ago, was getting new director’s cut (complete with a cutesy “Straight Up” play on words), and then imagine my further surprise when it genuinely was a different cut of the movie.
We open with a haggard, pissed off looking Porter (Mel Gibson) walking down a crowded public street in Any-city, USA (they actually shot in Chicago, but it doesn’t matter). Porter, we find out, is not a nice guy to say the least, and this immediately makes the film unique, he is a true anti-hero in every sense of the word with few, if any, redeeming qualities. He’s clearly haunted by something in his past, we hear flashes of a past violent skirmish bouncing around in his head as he goes about getting back on his feet. This involves lifting the wallet off a guy he vaguely resembles on the street so he can use his ID to take cash out of the bank. He maxes out the poor saps credit card, buys a few suits and watches and scores himself a gun. Next up he’s got go about making amends for whatever it was that happened to him. Eventually we find out in flashback that he’s a professional thief, and his wife betrayed him to a buddy on a recent job, shooting him twice in the back so they could make off with all the money.
He tracks her down first, finding her strung out, living in a flea bag apartment, stumbling home in a heroin induced daze. After she OD’s that night, Porter goes looking for the guy who set him up, Val Resnick. Resnick is played by Greg Henry (currently hamming it up on “The Riches”, check it out) with a sadistic swagger and makes him probably the only guy we could hate more than Porter. See Resnick double crossed Porter because he needed the proceeds of their payroll robbery to get in good with a city wide organized crime organization called the syndicate or the outfit. Plus he’s just kind of a jerk… and a sadist, which is important to the outfit since guys like him “come in handy” for a crime syndicate.
We wouldn’t find out until 2006 that Mel Gibson is indeed bat-shit insane, but I’ve always liked him as an actor, and this is the only time I can recall him playing such a bad dude. Ostensibly the hero of the film, he’s ruthless to the tune of tearing a kids’ nose ring out, smacks around his heroin dazed wife (before carrying her to bed “An Officer and a Gentleman” style) and holding a gun to Resnicks head while a dominatrix beats him up. Gibson really nails the part, making Porter both intensely unlikable, yet you’re really rooting for him the whole time. Props have to be given to Lucy Liu too, for playing Pearl, the Asian dominatrix referenced above. We all know Liu is sexy is as hell, but she’s also hilarious and very winning as Val’s resident ball buster.
So what makes this cut different than the original? Everything. The whole tone of the film is different. First off it drops Porters narration, which is probably for the better. Narration in movies tends to dumb it down, explaining subtleties and innuendo that really the viewer should be able to figure out on their own. Further the movie is far more serious, giving it a gritty noir feel of gangster movies of yore. The studio cut was much sunnier, and relied too heavily on the humor. Granted there are moments of levity here and there (Porter insists he’s owed $70,000 when everyone keeps trying to say he deserves $130,000), but this is a dead serious telling of a man out for revenge. Another major change is the reworking of the behind the scenes puppet master, completely dropping Kris Kristoffersons turn as Bronson, changing the character to an unseen voice on a speakerphone. Finally, the original “happy ending” was dropped for a far superior and much more ambiguous fade out.
Is it better? I don’t know you could give a definitive answer. Personally I think this is a much better told story, but I can see where the lack of any virtuous faces (the closest we get is the underrated Maria Bello as Rosie, a prostitute Porter used to drive for, and for whom he still nurses a soft spot) could turn some people off. From what I understand the studio, and Gibson in particular (bear in mind Icon is his studio), hated this cut, and forced the much more “user friendly” cut, because Mel didn’t like playing a total bad guy. If this is true, it’s kind of a shame since he really turns in a great performance, and I’d love to see him in more roles like this. In any event, big props go to director Brian Helgeland for finally getting his vision of the film out. This really is his baby, since he handled screenwriting duty, adapting Donald Westlake's novel “The Hunter”. My big regret is not thinking about this movie when I did Trevor Snyder’s Top 5 a few weeks ago, because this is certainly a movie that could be a lot of fun as a sequel and even a movie franchise. Now, if only we could get Gibson on board…
Commentary: Helgeland does this on his own, and it’s certainly illuminating, but doing solo commentaries is usually a mistake as they end up boring and rambling (go listen to Tim Burton on “Batman” and “Batman Returns”.) So most of this information might have been better conveyed with an interview. Better yet, if they could have gotten Gibson on board for the commentary, because that really could have been something special.
Paybacks are a Bitch: Two featurettes about the shooting of the film. One is on location in Chicago and the other is in the studio in L.A. Nothing too special here, unless you like to see Giblson and Greg Henry hamming it up on set. James Coburn (he has a small part in the film) is funny too.
Same Story Different Movie – Creating Payback: The Directors Cut: A little mini-doc about the differences between Helgeland and the studio. Helgeland is surprisingly self-deprecating about it, saying it’s not like he made a classic and the studio took it away. He just says that he didn’t know how to change it or make it anything other than the movie he’d already made. His big lesson, don’t kill the dog, test audiences hate that. Gibson, who is fairly diplomatic about his role in changing the ending, is pretty clearly unimpressed with the original cut and rewrote the third act. When Helgeland wouldn’t direct the new version, they canned him. Gibson really goes out of his way to defend the unnecessary narration. Then they go into a kind of boring talk about the hunt for the reels of the film and the technical process of recutting it. Finally they talk about giving the movie a new score, probably a wise choice as the original was a little too light for this new gritty cut.
The Hunter: A Conversation with Author Donald E. Westlake: A sit down interview with the author of the novel. Apparently he wrote several novels about the character, adding to my feelings this would be a great film franchise.
Tech Specs: Video
Anyone who’s seen the original knows that the movie had a blue tinged look to it. That’s been dropped for this version and that’s one of my few serious complaints. The blue tinge gave it a wonderful dank inner city noir feel, and the movie just seems to have less character as a result. Granted it looks pristine now, but this story might be one that benefits from looking a little rough around the edges.
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound stereo, so no complaints here.
The 411: I generally have issues any time a studio takes over a movie, because 99 times out of 100, they just screw it up. It gets dumbed down and made palatable for a wide audience. The chase of almighty dollar has really been responsible for destroying modern movies, as god forbid anything is released that’s thought provoking or middle America might not “get”. The examples are endless, look up the hubbub surrounding Orson Welles “A Touch of Evil” or more recently, the fiasco about “Grindhouse” and it’s disappointing opening weekend returns. So it’s really refreshing to see a director who was fired for this very reason, get his movie back and release the version he intended all along. I don’t know if it’s for everyone, but I certainly “get it”.