Payback – Straight Up (Austin Film Festival ’06)

By  · Published on October 28th, 2006

Release Date: TBA

If it looks like this review belongs in the vault or merits mention on an episode of “I Love the 90’s”, trust me, it doesn’t. The general populous is well aware of Payback, the black and blue Mel Gibson film that gave everyone something to see him in before Lethal Weapon 19 came out. It was the tawdry tale of Porter (Mel Gibson) who survives two bullets from his wife (Deborah Unger) and partner (Gregg Henry) only to seek revenge and his share of a $140,000 heist. Just for fun, and in preparation for seeing Payback – Straight Up, I decided to watch the original version of Payback. I do not suggest doing this.

To clarify, Straight Up isn’t a sequel or a remake – although some might consider it a remake since it’s so different from the first version – it is a director’s cut of the original done by the original director. Still confused? Me too. In 1998, Brian Helgeland (writer of L.A. Confidential) was fired from Payback after initial photography had taken place. A raw chunk of the movie was re-shot, the studio hired Kris Kristofferson to play Bronson, and the result was a movie that made a ton of money that nobody really liked. Flash forward to 2005 when Helgeland discovers the old footage in a Paramount basement, discusses re cutting the film with the new executives there, and the result is a great movie that will probably do decent DVD sales.

In this version, the main storyline is beefed up and the subplots are nowhere to be found – his son isn’t kidnapped and Kris Kristofferson’s Bronson doesn’t exist. This leaves the focus solely on Porter and the devastating physical and emotional havoc he wreaks on his enemies. It’s easy to understand why a studio with a major star wouldn’t oblige this version to leave the screening room; Porter isn’t a likable character. “Get ready to root for the bad guy” would have never passed as a slogan for this version because Mel Gibson is playing a real bad guy. Not one with soft edges that cares for his son or pets a puppy on his way to break someone’s toes off with a claw hammer. He is a gritty man in a leather jacket that turns his wife’s face into a Picasso.

The funny thing is this: since the original movie was so underwhelming, it will be difficult for audience’s to pinpoint differences in this one. Even going into the movie knowing the back story, I had trouble remembering what scenes were in the first or what got cut out. On its own, Straight Up is a good movie, but it’s not amazing. Most of the hype comes from Helgeland’s tragic tale as a slighted director, not from the innovative new vision. Counter that with great examples of film noir like the sultry L.A. Confidential, steroid-injected Sin City, or the hopefully soon-to-be-released Lonely Hearts (which also played at Austin), and Straight Up pales in comparison.

I’ll have to agree with Harry Knowles of when he says that Straight Up is “leaner and meaner…brutal and hard-nosed”, but I just can’t share his excitement or opinion that this movie should be released in theaters. According to Helgeland, it will probably be out on DVD sometime next year, and that’s the way it should be. It is a quirky oddity for those entrenched in the romanticism of behind-the-scenes, movie-making drama and those with Variety subscriptions to wonder at, but a general audience will probably end up not caring enough to take the drive to the multiplex to give a lackluster movie another shot. Plus, not everyone is going to like this movie, and that could backfire for Paramount if they chose to put it up on the big screen.

Hopefully this review will actually count for something when Straight Up comes out on DVD and you have to choose whether you want to shell out the rental fee to see it or not. If you want to be in on the conversation, or find the back story interesting, go for it. But if you’re in it to see an amazing re-cut of a film, keep on walking. With all due respect, Helgeland is a great writer, but his record as a director is short and sweet – A Knight’s Tale, The Sin Eater, and an episode of Tales from the Crypt. He did a good job with Payback Straight Up when he finally got to have the creative control necessary to make it sing, but it’s just not as impressive as the hype makes it out to be.

The Upside: It’s better than the “original”.

The Downside: This is a case where the in-crowd audience is ruining a movie. After hearing so many people who knew the back story rave about how amazing the movie was, the bar was set too high for me. It’s a solid film noir, but go into it wanting to be entertained, not blown out of your seat.

On the Side: Isn’t the back story for this movie enough trivia for one day?

Final Grade: B-

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