Payback (1999 film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBrian Helgeland
Screenplay by
Based onThe Hunter
by Richard Stark
Produced byBruce Davey
CinematographyEricson Core
Edited byKevin Stitt
Music by
  • Chris Boardman
  • Scott Stambler (Director's cut)
Distributed by
Release date
  • February 5, 1999 (1999-02-05)
Running time
  • 101 minutes
  • 90 minutes (Director's cut)
CountryUnited States
Budget$90 million[2]
Box office$161.6 million[2]

Payback is a 1999 American neo-noir action thriller film[3][4] written and directed by Brian Helgeland in his directorial debut, and starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, and David Paymer. It is based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake using the pseudonym Richard Stark, which had earlier been adapted into the 1967 film noir classic Point Blank, directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin.

In 2006, Helgeland issued a director's cut that differs substantially from the version released by the studio.


Porter, a career thief and former U.S. Marine, lies facedown on the kitchen table in the apartment of an unlicensed doctor, after having been shot twice and betrayed for $70,000. As the doctor uses the whiskey he is drinking as a sterilizing agent for his tools, the bullets, and as anesthesia. He then digs out the bullets, stitches up the open wounds, and then Porter begins making his plans to get the money back and take revenge.

Broke after five months of recuperating, Porter uses a series of petty thefts and short cons to quickly acquire $1,000 in cash, a new suit, a revolver, and a few meals. He then begins tracking down his estranged wife Lynn and former partner-in-crime Val Resnick. In flashbacks, Porter recalls that they betrayed him following a $140,000 heist from local Chinese Triad. Resnick had manipulated Lynn into helping him with a picture showing Porter with another woman, a high-priced call girl named Rosie, and implying that the two were having an affair. Lynn shoots Porter, then she and Resnick leave Porter for dead. Val used the cash to buy his way back into "the Outfit," a local organized crime syndicate, by paying off his outstanding debt of $130,000 to them.

Porter first seeks out his wife, Lynn, out of loyalty to their marriage; however, she has been consumed by guilt and become addicted to heroin. Porter attempts to help her sober up by confining her and confiscating her drugs, but the next morning he finds her dead from an overdose using a hidden stash. Believing that Resnick was funding her drug habit, Porter interrogates Lynn's drug connection, who points him towards Resnick's middle-man, Arthur Stegman, a sleazy drug, muscle, and weapons supplier for the bottom rung of the criminal underworld. Porter finds Stegman in the company of two corrupt police detectives, Hicks and Leary, who threaten him for a share of the $70,000, once he acquires it.

Using Stegman's information, Porter enlists the help of Rosie, who is now affiliated with the Outfit. Rosie agrees, revealing that she still cares about Porter from when he was her bodyguard; Porter agrees, and the two lament that they never moved forward with their relationship, as they were each repelled by the others' career and Porter could not abandon Lynn. Rosie tells Porter that he can track Resnick through his employ of specialty prostitutes, as he is barred from soliciting Outfit call girls because his sadistic tendencies nearly killed one of them.

Porter finds Resnick during a session with a Triad-connected dominatrix named Pearl, when Porter ambushes him and demands his money. Fearful, Resnick later begs the Outfit for help but is told to solve his own problems. He then uses Pearl to frame Porter for the $140,000 heist so the Triads will kill him; however, this attempt fails. Resnick follows Porter's trail to Rosie's apartment, and beats and threatens to rape her when she fights back, as well as demanding to know Porter's whereabouts. Porter arrives and wounds Resnick, who attempts to bargain for his life by giving him the names of the Outfit bosses Fairfax and Carter; since Resnick does not have the money, Porter kills him. He takes Rosie to a safe house, only to find that it is now compromised and rigged with plastic explosives, connected to the telephone by three of Carter's hitmen. Porter kills them and later confronts Carter in his own office, threatening to kill him unless he pays the $70,000. Carter states he is only an underboss, thus unauthorized to make financial decisions and calls Bronson, the head of the Outfit. During the negotiation, both Carter and Bronson believe that Porter is demanding the full $130,000 that Resnick paid the Outfit, though Porter repeatedly corrects them that all he wants is his share, which Resnick stole. When Bronson refuses over the phone, Porter carries out his threat and kills Carter. Porter then frames Hicks and Leary by planting Leary's fingerprints on the gun used to kill Resnick, as well as stealing Hicks's badge and leaving it with the gun in Resnick's hand.

With the aid of Rosie, Porter kidnaps Bronson's son, Johnny. He then visits and threatens Fairfax; Hicks and Leary, who are waiting outside Fairfax's house, are promptly arrested by Internal Affairs on account of the false evidence left earlier. A shootout ensues involving Porter, Stegman, his driver, Pearl and the Triads; only Porter and Pearl survive. Porter is held at gunpoint by Pearl which inadvertently causes him to be captured by Fairfax's men; he is taken to a warehouse and beaten for hours. Bronson arrives with his own men and the $130,000 ransom, though he swears that Porter will never lay his hands on it. Porter unsuccessfully tries to reason that all he wanted was the $70,000 that Resnick owed him, but Bronson then authorizes his men to hammer Porter's toes one-by-one, until he reveals Johnny's location; Bronson's men smash two toes before he gives them a location.

Bronson, Fairfax, and their men take Porter with them to investigate the address; however, the address is actually the compromised safe house wired with explosives. While they make their way to the apartment, Porter breaks free through the locked trunk and makes his way to the car's cell phone, and then dials the bomb's trigger just as they enter the room. The explosion kills Bronson, Fairfax, and their men, and Porter flees the scene to contact Rosie. Upon his arrival, Rosie leaves Johnny behind and joins Porter in the car to start new lives together, beginning by "going for Canada."



The film was shot from September to November 1997, in Chicago and Los Angeles, though neither city is referred to in the film. Although credited as director, Brian Helgeland's cut of the film was not the theatrical version released to audiences. Helgeland notoriously clashed with producer Gibson over Gibson's ideas for the film. After the end of principal photography, Gibson admitted that he was instrumental in having Helgeland removed as director before the film was released.[5] A script rewrite by Terry Hayes was ordered. There was initially some uncertainty on who directed the reshoots, with some sources claiming it was the production designer John Myhre.[6] However, Paul Abascal has stated on his website that he in fact directed the new scenes.[7] The new director reshot 30% of the film.[8] The intent was to make the Porter character accessible. The film's tagline became: "Get Ready to Root for the Bad Guy." A potentially controversial scene between Porter and Lynn which arguably involves spousal abuse was excised and more plot elements were added to the third act. After 10 days of reshoots, a new opening scene and voiceover track also were added, and Kris Kristofferson walked on as a new villain.[9]

Alternate version[edit]

Helgeland's version, Straight Up: The Director's Cut, was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and HD DVD on April 10, 2007, after an October 2006 run at the Austin Film Festival. The Director's Cut version features a female Bronson, that is never seen only heard over the phone voiced by Sally Kellerman, does not include the voice-over by Porter and several Bronson-related scenes. During their scuffle (which is longer than in the theatrical version and was the main source of controversy), Porter earlier tells Lynn that his picture with Rosie was taken before they met, thereby rendering her jealousy unjustified. This version has an entirely different, ambiguous ending where Porter is seriously wounded in a train station shootout and driven off by Rosie.

A June 4, 2012, look at "movies improved by directors' cuts" by The A.V. Club described Payback: Straight Up as "a marked improvement on the unrulier original."[10]


Mel Gibson stated in a short interview released as a DVD extra that it "would've been ideal to shoot in black and white." He noted that "people want a color image" and that the actual film used a bleach bypass process to tint the film. In addition to this, the production design used muted shades of red, brown, and grey for costumes, sets, and cars for further effect.[11]


Box office[edit]

Payback was well received at the box office. The film made $21,221,526 in its opening weekend in North America. It eventually grossed $81,526,121 in North America and $80,100,000 in other territories, totaling $161,626,121 worldwide.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, 56% of 77 critics gave Payback a positive review, with an average rating of 5.9/10. The website's critical consensus states, "Sadistic violence and rote humor saddle a predictable action premise."[12] Metacritic assigned the film a weighted average score of 46 out of 100, based on 18 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[13] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B−" on an A+ to F scale.[14]

Roger Ebert gave the film a three out of four stars, writing in his review: "There is much cleverness and ingenuity in Payback, but Mel Gibson is the key. The movie wouldn't work with an actor who was heavy on his feet, or was too sincere about the material."[15]


  1. ^ "Payback (1999) - Overview -". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on 20 August 2018. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  2. ^ a b c "Payback (1999)". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Archived from the original on September 15, 2011. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  3. ^ "Payback". Variety. 5 February 1999. Archived from the original on 2019-10-22. Retrieved 2019-10-22.
  4. ^ "Mel Gibson - His Performance In 'Payback' Still Not Getting Enough Credit". The Onion. 16 December 2010. Archived from the original on 2019-10-22. Retrieved 2019-10-22.
  5. ^ Caro, Mark (18 February 1999). "GIBSON TELLS WHY HE TOOK OVER PAYBACK". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 26 December 2022.
  6. ^ "Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut". High-Def Digest. April 6, 2007. Archived from the original on October 30, 2015. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  7. ^ "Paul Abascal".
  8. ^ Faraci, Devin (April 6, 2007). "Exclusive Interview: Brian Helgeland (Payback Director's Cut DVD)". Archived from the original on July 8, 2011. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  9. ^ Abel, Glenn (April 16, 2007). "Mel Gibson's lost kick-ass film". DVD Spin Doctor. Archived from the original on July 17, 2011. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  10. ^ "The kindest cut: 14-plus movies improved by directors' cuts". The A.V. Club. June 4, 2012. Archived from the original on August 25, 2015. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  11. ^ Mel Gibson (1999). Payback (DVD). Warner Home Video. EAN 7321900173438. Retrieved September 1, 2014.
  12. ^ "Payback (1999)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Archived from the original on July 24, 2020. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
  13. ^ "Payback Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved July 2, 2008.
  14. ^ "CinemaScore". Archived from the original on 2018-01-02. Retrieved 2021-11-28.
  15. ^ Ebert, Roger (February 5, 1999). "Payback Movie Review & Film Summary (1999)". Archived from the original on February 4, 2017. Retrieved September 3, 2015.

External links[edit]