Payback Straight Up: The Director’s Cut Blu-ray Review

Filmmaker Richard Donner is one of Brian Helgeland’s mentors. Helgeland worked with Donner on the 1997 Mel Gibson/Julia Roberts thriller Conspiracy Theory and learned quite a bit about the filmmaking process while on set. Unfortunately for Helgeland, he didn’t take notes on how not to be fired from a production he was in charge of directing.

As most of us know, Donner was famously fired from the production of Superman II in the late 1970s by the film’s producers over creative differences. During post-production in 1998, Helgeland was shown the door by the studio heads of Paramount and Warner Brothers due to creative differences that arose over his directorial debut, the crime thriller Payback. The studio heads were worried about the commercial prospects of a story so dark (do any of these people read the damn scripts before giving the go ahead these days?), and asked Helgeland to make changes. The rookie director would have, but couldn’t come up with anything new that both he and the studios could be happy with. At that point, he agreed to leave the project and Mel Gibson, Payback’s star (and co-producer) was asked to help with the re-shoots.

Approximately 30 percent of the film was reworked, the new footage directed by production designer John Myhre and written by Terry Hayes. Nearly a year later, Payback arrived in theaters. The studio heads had wanted Payback to be more like a Lethal Weapon film: a commercially-viable action film mixed with comedy. They got their mix, and given the healthy box office, they also pleased the crowds. But on a creative level, Payback definitely displayed the marks of a Frankenstein project: the lighter bits felt jarring in contrast to the extremely mean nature of the rest of the film (forget the fact that the characters were pretty damn thin, even for this genre).

Cut to six years later. For reasons unknown, aside from the fact that everyone probably smelled untapped revenue of cash, Paramount and Icon Productions (Gibson’s production company) decided to give Helgeland a chance to finish up and release his version of Payback. Helgeland obliged, and the result is Payback-Straight Up: The Director’s Cut.

The story of the new cut is pretty much the same as before: a thug, known only as Porter (Gibson), is back in town to get back the $70,000 stolen from him by his former partner in crime, a sadist named Val (Gregg Henry) and Porter’s wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger). Before he gets the chance to obtain what he’s come for, Porter has to contend with crooked cops, small-time thugs, a dominatrix (Lucy Liu) with connections to the gang Porter and Val originally robbed as well as The Outfit, the unnamed city’s version of the Mafia.

A fair amount has changed from the 100-minute theatrical version to this 90-minute director’s cut. The opening scene of Porter being fixed up by a doctor is gone as is the dry voice-over Gibson provided throughout. A brutal fight between Lynn and Porter has been reinstated, and several small scenes of dialogue exchanges between various characters throughout the movie have been inserted and/or changed as well.

The most significant changes, however, appear in the third act, which was the area that received the most work after Helgeland was removed as director back in 1998. The character of mob boss Bronson, played by Kris Kristofferson, is no longer in the movie. Bronson only exists as a voice on the phone and is no longer a man, but a woman (voiced by Sally Kellerman). Scenes between Gibson and crime heads Fairfax (James Coburn) and Carter (William Devane) have also been changed to reflect this, and the final showdown between Porter and various members of “The Outfit” now takes place in and around a subway platform, not in a booby-trapped hotel room.

Do these nips and tucks make Payback a better movie? Yes and no. The movie is definitely a leaner-and meaner- version of the story than what has been seen for the past eight years. The dark tone remains consistent throughout in the director’s cut, and even without Gibson’s narration, the character of Porter is a bit more accessible and less of a robotic killing machine thanks to some additional passages of dialogue and restored scenes.

Unfortunately, the issues I had with Payback in its theatrical version still remain with the Helgeland cut. Despite decent efforts by the cast, the film’s characters still lack proper dimension. I don’t care if this is a simple revenge tale, a few minutes of back story on a few of the main characters never hurt anyone. They have one note-mostly of the vicious varieties-and not much else. And that pesky third act, no matter which version you champion, is still missing a satisfying conclusion. Helgeland’s third act is a big improvement than the redone, tacked on ending of the 1999 theatrical version. The only problem is that Helgeland’s version simply ends, and does so in a rather abrupt, unsatisfying way. It leaves one wondering what a rewrite and additional shooting by Helgeland might have brought to the table. Much like his mentor’s altered theatrical-and recently restored to its original intended version- of Superman II, both versions of Brian Helgeland’s Payback offer the viewer pluses and minuses, but neither fully satisfies in the end.

What does satisfy, however, is the Blu-ray edition that Paramount assembled. The theatrical cut and original 1999 DVD release presented the movie with a bluish tint (via a process known as Bleach Bypass) to give the story a more film noir-ish feel. On occasion, it worked. More often than not however, the look was detracting and ugly. Combine that with the resolution limitations of standard-definition DVD and a print that looked like it went head to head with Porter in a dark alley (and lost), the visual style looked downright awful. Thankfully, Helgeland and director of photography Ericson Core decided to remove a healthy amount of the bypass process and restore the richness and sporadic color bursts of the original negative.

The 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer (in its 2.35:1 theatrical ratio) does a good job representing the restoration of the negative’s color scheme. In comparison to the MPEG-4 AVC encoded HD DVD release, the Blu-ray transfer seems to be a bit softer (not a terrible amount, but just enough to notice if you are doing an A/B comparison of the two HD formats), and also grainier. The print used for both editions is in very good shape. Overall detail is solid, the colors (where the film actually has color that is) are vibrant and the black levels are excellent. Flesh tones are for the most part okay, although they tend to be a bit blown out on occasion, making for faces that appear a bit whiter than they should be.

There is one choice for film audio on the Blu-ray of Payback, and that is in 5.1 Dolby Digital (the HD DVD has a 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus track, but in all honesty I was hard pressed to find any sort of differences between the two). Surround activity isn’t as active as one would expect from a crime thriller such as this. But then again, the most prominent surround activity I remember from the DVD of the theatrical cut was a subway car coming into the frame, and one or two large explosions (both found in scenes deleted from Helgeland’s cut of the film). Music has some nice separation and dialogue is clearly presented in the front channel. This is a serviceable, but ultimately unexciting audio track.

While I was somewhat indifferent to the movie, I was very impressed by the selection of supplemental material assembled for this release (all home video editions of the director’s cut have the same bonus material). The behind-the-scenes story of the production of Payback is more interesting than the final product, no two ways around it. When watching the bonus material on the Blu-ray, be sure that you watch the extras in the way that I will be reviewing them here. Trust me; watching them in this order makes them play like their own mini-movie (or a really great lesson about the movie business). The extras are presented in MPEG-2, anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. All are in decent, if a bit soft, shape.

Paybacks Are A Bitch is a two-part documentary that looks at the making of the film before Helgeland was shown the door. You can watch the documentary either in two parts, On Location in Chicago (30 minutes) and On Set In Los Angeles (approx. 20 minutes), or you can select the “Play All” feature. The Chicago section of the documentary features interviews with Helgeland, Mel Gibson, co-stars Deborah Kara Unger and David Paymer as well as filmmaker Richard Donner. The origins of the project are discussed and the documentary features a lot of location footage that shows that the production at least began on a happy note. The Los Angeles section continues to show the overall good vibe of the shoot, and has more interviews with cast and crew as they discuss working with vets such as William Devane, the late James Coburn as well as at-the-time newcomer Maria Bello.

So far, so good. It is in the excellent 30-minute featurette Same Story: Different Movie-Creating the Director’s Cut of Payback where we are given the details of the bad part of the film’s production. Helgeland, Gibson, Unger and film editor Kevin Stitt are interviewed regarding Helgeland’s dismissal, the reasons why it happened and the process of getting the filmmaker’s original vision finished and shown. It’s an honest look at the film business that features candid insights from a director who realized he was in a bit over his head, a diplomatic star/producer stuck in the middle of the fight, and an editor who has been part of the film’s long journey right from the start.

Brian Helgeland’s Feature-Length Audio Commentary should be your next stop on your All Things Payback DVD tour. Helgeland provides a fine commentary track that builds upon a lot of what he discussed in the documentaries, giving the viewer insights into the production, the changes in the two cuts of the film, what he learned from his firing (Helgeland’s advice to budding filmmakers: Never kill a dog in your movie. In fact, don’t put a dog in your film, period.), the motivations of the film’s characters and what he was aiming for in the final product. Helgeland talks to the viewer as if he or she is sitting in the room along with him, making for an easygoing and informative 90 minutes.

Closing out the extras is the 11-minute The Hunter: A Conversation With Author Donald E. Westlake. This extra really doesn’t have much to do with the others, but it is still a nice, quick interview with the author who gave birth to the character played by Gibson in books he wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Stark (in the books, Porter was named Parker). He talks about the various Parker novels he has written and voices his opinion on both Payback and the first movie made from The Hunter, the 1967 John Boorman/Lee Marvin pulp classic, Point Blank.

The only possible extra missing from this edition that I would have liked to have seen included would have been the 1999 theatrical cut of the film. True, I wasn’t the biggest fan of that cut, but it would have been cool to include it, if only to compare and contrast the two versions.

Dramatically altering a movie and then presenting both cuts is always a fascinating experience for serious fans of film. Even if the versions still don’t add up to a satisfying film one way or the other, the various interpretations of the story and the behind-the-scenes tales are always worth checking out. That was the case with Supeman II, and that is certainly the case with Payback. The director’s cut is less schizophrenic in tone and represents a more focused story, even if it is still plagued by thin characters and a troubled third act. Paramount’s Blu-ray edition of the disc is a solid edition that is worth it for the extras alone.

– Shawn Fitzgerald

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