Movies From the Black Lagoon: Payback (Straight up: The Director's Cut)

Movies From the Black Lagoon
Payback (Straight up: The Director's Cut), 2005, Unrated

Most "director's cut" DVDs are just longer versions of the original film that include extended scenes and deleted ones, which usually slow the whole thing down. This DVD, however, is the real deal and offers the original version of Brian Helgeland's modern noir effort which proved too dark for Paramount Pictures. They liked most of the film but found it too dark so they brought in producer/star Mel Gibson who shot ten days of additional scenes that made the film more marketable by giving it a happy ending and a new chief villain (which created a role for Kris Kristofferson who doesn't appear here). This was all done with no animosity from Helgeland who owed the gig to Gibson and didn't feel the need to step in and make another version of his own film. It all worked out well with Gibson's cut earning big bucks and now fans of the film can see that the original version maintains a dark tone and offers a gritty, unhappy, and very realistic finale.
The film opens with a guy named Porter (Gibson) blowing back into town after recovering from a near fatal shooting. He's no charmer and promptly grabs some cash from a homeless panhandler before picking a yuppie's pocket and maxing out his credit card. Then Porter pays a visit to his junkie wife, Lynn, and earns even less points by smacking her around and barely batting an eye when he finds her dead from an overdose in the morning. Via flashbacks we learn that Porter was betrayed by Lynn and his partner Val (a smarmy Gregg Henry who went on to perfect smarmy as a small town mayor in "Slither") after robbing bagmen for the Chinese mob. It was actually Lynn who shot him and one begins to understand Porter's plight. Then you learn that Porter just wants his share of the money from the robbery and one starts to wonder how we're supposed to feel about this guy, as he is not concerned with revenge. It's this sort of moral ambiguity that probably scared off the studio but it comes off as ultra realistic and even more satisfying.
Val turns out to be broke as he gave all of the dough to the mob to buy his way into the organization. Porter fails to collect from the conniving Val and goes over his head (after putting a big hole in it) by approaching the mob and asking for his share of what Val paid them. The second in command takes the meeting and is sorry he did when Val opts to shoot him after learning he can't approve payback. This act insures the next guy up will approve the deal and he does after watching Porter blow a hole though his fancy alligator luggage, which prompts him to mutter, "That's just mean." It all leads to a tense money drop sequence that finds Porter staking out a subway station and ceremoniously picking off every patron who appears to be a mobster. It's a great finale but nobody walks away from it unscathed, which proves the adage that crime doesn't pay. Too bad the studio didn't agree because their version practically advocated violence by allowing Porter to kill the top mafia dog and walk away clean while this story ends on a more somber, yet entirely appropriate, note.
Cheers to Mel Gibson for helping this version see the light of the day. The film in all its incarnations was blessed with great work from Gibson and Henry. You also get great performances from a solid cast that includes William DeVane and James Coburn, as mobsters, and Maria Bello, Lucy Liu, and Debra Kara Unger, as a trio of tough dames right out of an old RKO gangster film. If you like a crime drama that's lean and mean then you have to check this one out. It's raw, dark, and uncompromising which means that, according to the studios, mass audiences could never accept it. Prove them wrong and check it out.
Bets Line: "You're a sadist. You lack compunction. That comes in handy."

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