America’s favorite Australian sheepherder is back in the movie with the tagline, “GET READY TO ROOT FOR THE BAD GUY.” Not necessarily the bad guy, per se, so much as a raging sociopath hell-bent for revenge. Why? Mel Gibson plays Porter, a career criminal who agrees to a heist to help his old pal, Val (Brian De Palma regular, Gregg Henry). Since they’re stealing $140,000 in laundered drug money from Chinese Triads, no one is going to call the police. Perfect, yes? Everything goes smoothly until Porter’s drug-addled wife, Lynn (Debra Kara Unger), shoots Porter in the back. After Val had shown Lynn a photo of Porter in the arms of another girl (Maria Bello), the two planned the double-cross together to pay off Val’s mob debts so he could return to “The Syndicate”. They didn’t do very good job, though, because five months later Porter’s back, completely pathological, and he wants his $70,000 cut. Oh, and he REALLY doesn’t care how many people he has to kill to get it.
Brian Helgeland, the screenwriter for “L.A. Confidential” and “Conspiracy Theory”, makes his directing debut with this adaptation of the novel “The Hunter” by Donald E. Westlake (writing under the pseudonym, Richard Stark). The same novel served as the basis for the better “Point Blank” directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin. Ironically, Boorman’s films, particularly “Point Blank”, deal effectively with the repercussions of violence. “Payback” rips out at least one dimension to reduce everything to archetypal good guys and bad guys, or bad guy and worse guys. Gibson’s Porter has no reservations about taking money from innocent bystanders or shooting unarmed men to make a point. He incongruously displays compassion for dogs and women (inevitably portrayed as victims) for a claim at redeemability, just in case those adorable baby blue eyes don’t do the job. The rest of the cast asks Porter why he’s going on a killing spree for $70,000 so many times, the audience actually stops thinking about it. It’s “the principle of the thing.” It’s apparently one of the only ones he has.
All in all, “I Spit On Your Grave” is a more effective revenge drama. “Payback” is just “Die Hard: Without a Soul.”