Exploring Brian Helgeland’s Payback, A Tale of Two Movies

By  · Published on November 19th, 2015

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was fired off of Payback two days after winning an Oscar. Helgeland was in the midst of battling Paramount and Mel Gibson’s product company, Icon, during the night of the Academy Awards. After winning the golden statue for his phenomenal adaptation of L.A. Confidential, he was confident he’d win this creative battle.

He was wrong.

Gibson and the studio were nervous about the dark tone of Helgeland’s directorial debut. They were pushing him to conduct reshoots, and after the director refused, he was let go. Once a third of the movie was reshot, the director went as far as to go to the DGA to try to have his name removed from Payback. Aware how much this move would damage his career, in addition the difficulty of using the Alan Smithee pseudonym, Helgeland’s name remained on his butchered vision.

This story has a happy ending, though: Paramount and Gibson let him release his director’s cut years later. Feeling a little regretful about how things went down, the Lethal Weapon star urged Paramount to pony up the recourses for Helgeland to get his version out there.

This wouldn’t be the last time the director dealt with studio meddling. Following his immensely enjoyable medieval romantic comedy, A Knight’s Tale, Helgeland reunited with star Heath Ledger on The Order — a thriller that got ripped to pieces in post-production. Years later, the screenwriter burst out of director’s jail, thanks to the success of his Jackie Robinson biopic, 42.

Helgeland’s newest film, Legend, is more akin to Payback than 42. The English gangster pic, starring Tom Hardy in dual roles, is a flashy, brutal and funny crime picture about brotherhood. Unlike The Order or Payback, Legend isn’t a compromised vision, or at least it doesn’t come across as one.

To celebrate the release of Helgeland’s fourth directorial effort, we decided to see which version of Payback is the superior cut. Here’s the result:

Straight Up Edition

In the first five minutes or so of the film, Porter (Mel Gibson) steals from a homeless man and a waitress, and punches his deceitful, junkie ex-wife. Clearly, this is not your average hero. Does Porter even qualify as an anti-hero? You never really root for the criminal, which is a part of this nasty director’s cut’s appeal. The Straight Up edition is a truly hardboiled, uncompromising crime picture.

This adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s book opens with an alluring opening credits. Porter, after being left for dead, is shown rebuilding his life one morning; it’s all established efficiently. To get the $70,000 he’s owed, he’ll do what he has to. The time between Porter’s “murder” and his revenge is left unknown. Helgeland only tells an audience what they need to know.

The director’s cut is meat and potatoes storytelling. The simplicity of it all is absorbing. Porter has a cleanly defined goal, no arc. The character doesn’t change much over the course of the film, with the exception of his relationship with Rosie (Maria Bello), a high-class call girl he looked after. They once shared a romantic evening together, but their bond is mostly expressed through their interactions, not grand romantic gestures or schmalzy dialogue.

The main villain, voiced by a woman, is always off-screen. We’re firmly planted in Porter’s shoes. Intimate isn’t the right word to describe Helgeland’s direction, but he is more dedicated to the crook’s point-of-view than the theatrical cut. This film doesn’t need a major presence for its antagonist; all it needs is Gibson’s undeniable 90s’ charm as Porter. He’s entertaining enough on his own.

As despicable as Porter is, the film ends on a strangely poignant note. The protagonist doesn’t make any grand realization, but his past comes back to haunt him in his final moments. Whether Porter dies is left ambiguous – although he probably does – but the fact that he’ll die over $70,000 hits him hard, as he’s shot up and bleeding on the streets. He may miss out on a good life with Rosie because he couldn’t let go of his principals – that he deserves what’s his. How Gibson plays this scene, and how Scott Stambler’s melancholic piece of music plays over this piece of acting, is a surprisingly powerful ending.


The Theatrical Cut

Watching the theatrical cut of Payback is underwhelming after seeing the Director’s Cut. At the start of the film, the alternations – which hurt the finished product – are glaring. The picture is drained of color, feeling completely like a bleach bypassed product of its time. The theatrical cut is a 90s movie, while the Straight Up edition is a timeless movie.

The plot mostly remains intact, but in an attempt to make an accessible film, Paramount and Gibson made a more distancing story. Weirdly, despite not seeing a dog killed in this cut or Porter punching his ex-wife, the character is more unlikable – and not in a good way. This version never commits to the seediness of his journey, or the world he inhabits. In an attempt to soften the character, they only made Porter’s story more muddled.

It’s understandable that the studio got cold feet over Helgeland’s cut; it’s not a movie for everyone. The writer/director didn’t pull his punches, while this version does. The Straight Up edition is comfortable relying on Gibson’s charisma, scaled-back thrills, and its hardboiled atmosphere. The theatrical cut, however, throws in explosions, a redundant narration, and puts a face to the villain.

If there’s one smart addition Paramount made to Payback, it’s Kris Kristofferson. The actor plays the head of the syndicate, the crime organization Porter goes after. The actor has a quiet menace that compliments Porter’s reserved demeanor. Watching Kristofferson and Gibson act alongside each other is a joy, but their scenes are fitting a formula, not a story. Kristofferson’s character is only present to tell a more conventional revenge film.

There’s also more Maria Bello in this cut, which is a hard decision to knock. When Porter’s friend-turned-enemy, played cheekily by Gregg Henry, beats Rosie, Bello responds with anger, not fear. It’s a great scene that, wisely, stayed in the theatrical cut.

The Winner?

Isn’t it obvious by now? The Straight Up edition. Hands down. The Director’s Cut is a lean and mean movie. The theatrical cut, which runs 10 minutes longer, holds its audience’s hand with too tight of a grasp, explaining relationships and scenarios we can comprehend through Helgeland’s framing and the performances.

The theatrical cut has a narration from Mel Gibson that rivals Harrison Ford’s voiceover in Blade Runner for the most disinterested-sounding narration ever recorded. Porter, who only says what he needs to in the Straight Up edition, says too much in the movie we saw in theaters. The theatrical cut is enjoyable, but it’s not as gleeful, tightly paced, or as cinematic as Helgeland’s darkly comedic Director’s Cut.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.