The first question I ask about any new version of a film is the obvious – is it better than the original? Same goes for Payback – Straight Up: The Director’s Cut. Sometimes, the difference between versions is so minor that the answer is straightforward. In the case of this Special Collector’s Edition DVD, however, we’re talking about a very different film.
What’s changed? I’ve seen the original a couple of times, but I’m definitely working from memory here. The director’s cut is shorter, by about 10 minutes, and darker in tone. There’s a new opening that doesn’t explain what Porter is after, and his voice-over is gone This results in Porter being a meaner S.O.B. than in the original, as he does plenty of bad stuff before we learn what he’s up to, and why his actions might be justifiable. Also absent are a lot of the jokes, which didn’t sit well for me in the theatrical cut. Finally, the last third of the film is completely changed to something less complicated and less happy, with an extra shot of ambiguity.
All of the above might not mean much to you if you haven’t seen the original Payback. The story follows Porter (Mel Gibson, Braveheart), a robber by trade. He’s not your usual Hollywood thief, glorified and well-mannered. No, Porter is rough, mean and violent. You may recall the film’s marketing campaign, with the slogan, “get ready to root for the bad guy,” or something to that effect. That’s the deal here, as although Porter’s a real bad guy, he’s definitely the lesser of evils in an underworld of organized crime, drug dealers and crooked cops.
This cut opens with Porter arriving in town and getting himself geared up. He robs a homeless guy, borrows another man’s identity to score more cash, that sort of thing. Then he goes looking for a woman we learn was his wife, who’s a heroin addict. It’s not a happy greeting, but a violent one. She’s surprised to see him, because she thought he was dead, and he’s pretty pissed off about that; the reason she thought it, not that she thought it. There’s our first clue about Porter’s story. Somebody tried to kill him, and failed. And his wife seems to have been involved.
As the film progresses, we learn via flashbacks what went down. It involves Porter being screwed out of 70 large, and he wants it back, with a side of revenge. I’d hate to spoil the fun, though, so I’ll stop the synopsis stuff there.
Director Brian Helgeland also penned the screenplay, adapted from The Hunter, a novel by Richard Stark. Helgeland’s intent with Payback, his first picture as a director, was to do a low-budget, gritty film with a 70’s feel. Seems like he got screwed on the theatrical version, though, because his cut was deemed to be too dark, and before release 30 per cent of the film was re-shot by production designer John Myhre (X-Men). Hence this director’s cut, which finally brings us the Payback Helgeland wanted us to see.
Thank goodness for DVD, because Payback – Straight Up: The Director’s Cut is a better film. The shorter length better fits the brutal nature of Porter’s character, as does the revised ending. Throughout the film, Porter is a guy who doesn’t pull punches, and doesn’t mess around. Sure he’s smart, but the original version’s ending, with the kidnapping and misdirection, just doesn’t work as well as Helgeland’s more believable finish.
What remains the same with the director’s cut is the excellent supporting cast. The highlight for me is Gregg Henry (Slither), who plays psychopath Val Resnick. Henry is slimy, sadistic and at times humorous, and watching him chew up scenes I wish the guy would get bigger roles. He’s does a lot of character acting for TV and film, but few parts with as much meat as Resnick. Other strong efforts here include Maria Bello (A History of Violence) as Porter’s old flame, and William Devane (24) and James Coburn (Affliction) as crime kingpins.
I like the director’s cut better, but that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect film. For starters, the crime-film clich’s are a bit too prevalent, though Helgeland’s cut does ease up on them. But perhaps the biggest fault here is that Porter isn’t truly the bad guy. That aforementioned marketing slogan is only skin-deep. Yeah, Porter’s a mean one, but the character is also honorable and at times caring, which readily differentiates him from his enemies in their criminal world. For me, Porter is in a way just an exaggeration of Gibson’s Lethal Weapon character, the rogue cop who breaks the rules to take down bad people. That this is a bad thing may be debatable, but it doesn’t sit right with me. On the other hand, I’m torn, because I’m not sure I want to see the movie any other way.
In any case, Helgeland’s Payback is an improvement on a hard-edged, violent revenge story, and definitely worth checking out. So, how’s the DVD?
Payback – The Director’s Cut (Special Collector’s Edition) is presented on one disc, in 2.35:1 widescreen format. It looks good. It’s got plenty of detail, nice contrast, deep blacks and consistent colors. There’s a fair amount of grain, but it’s hard to say whether it’s any more than the filmmakers intended. After all, the film pays homage to gritty 70’s movies.
The main audio presentation is Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s a solid mix, with lots going on all around. Dialogue is always clear, effects are well defined, and surround channels are used for directional effect when appropriate. The rhythmic score sounds full, though at times I felt it was a little heavy, like the levels were a bit off. Not a big complaint, just an observation.
Subtitles are only available in English.
Payback – The Director’s Cut (Special Collector’s Edition) doesn’t let up in the bonus material department. While the list of features isn’t long, it’s definitely quality over quantity. Here’s the breakdown:
- Audio commentary: by director Brian Helgeland. He does a good job explaining his version of the film, and providing insight into the production. My only complaint is that he’s not a particularly dynamic speaker.
- Payback’s a Bitch: a 50-minute documentary in two parts: “on location in Chicago” and “on location in LA”. This is the best feature on the disc, and one of the better “making-of” pieces I’ve seen in a while. I felt like I was learning something new almost every step of the way.
- Same Story, Different Movie – Creating Payback: The Director’s Cut: another lengthy documentary, this 30-minute piece focuses on the changes and why they were made, and includes interviews from Helgeland, producers Gibson and Stephen McEveety, and others. This one’s also definitely worth watching.
- The Hunter: A Conversation with Author Donald Westlake: Westlake wrote the original novel in a pulp series under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Here he discusses the character of Porter, whom he had originally named Parker.
Payback – The Director’s Cut (Special Collector’s Edition) is a great example of why I love DVD. Whether or not you agree that Helgeland’s cut is superior to the theatrical version, the beauty here is that, about eight years later, we get to see what the filmmaker originally intended, and enjoy some in-depth special features. This disc deserves a place in any action fan’s collection.
Special Features List
- Audio commentary by director Brian Helgeland
- Payback’s a Bitch, a two-part making-of documentary
- Same Story, Different Movie – Creating Payback: The Director’s Cut
- The Hunter: A Conversation with Author Donald Westlake