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Payback Is Mel Gibson At His Nastiest, And Therefore Best

After one viewing, I’m ready to call Mad Max: Fury Road the best English-language action flick since Terminator 2, if not Die Hard. It’s a motherfucker of a movie, a new benchmark in violent cinematic mayhem. I’ve you’ve ever read this column and you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading and go now. You owe it to yourself. If there’s one thing I found wanting about the movie, though, it was this: no Mel Gibson.

Obviously, Gibson couldn’t have played Max at this late date, partly because he’s too old to jump from one car to another, but mostly because he’s revealed himself to be a deeply toxic human being. But the guy had a malevolent-asshole flair to him that Tom Hardy just can’t match. Hardy is tough and sturdy and does fascinatingly strange things with his voice, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy being an absolute dick. Even at his most stone-faced, Gibson gave us that, which means it meant more when it was finally time for Max to do something out of the goodness of his own heart.


Looking back on a pretty incredible action-hero career, we might have to conclude that Mel Gibson was good at his job in part because he was (and is) a deeply fucked up human being. He anchored two great and completely different action franchises, Mad Max and Lethal Weapon. And in both of those original movies, his main defining character trait was that he was a crazy bastard. He painted his face blue to kill English soldiers in Braveheart and won a Best Picture Oscar in the process. Even 2006’s Apocalypto, the last movie he directed, is a secretly great action movie, something lost in all the noise about it being both weirdly disrespectful and weirdly overly respectful to the cultures it was depicting. It’s a movie only a crazy bastard could’ve made.

That insanity is on full display in Payback, a deeply and enjoyably nasty little movie that Gibson made in 1999. In the opening scenes, he steals all the paper money from a panhandler’s hat, skates out of a diner without tipping, steals a guy’s wallet, and then withdraws a pile of money from said guy’s bank account. The movie dares you not to like him, but then it throws him into this world of even worse assholes and cutthroats and bloodthirsty marauders, making Gibson the hero almost by default.

Payback is an adaptation of The Hunter, the first book in Richard Stark’s great Parker series. The Parker books are fucking awesome: tough and terse and compulsively readable stories about an implacable criminal who’s extremely good at his job and has no moral compass whatsoever. Parker doesn’t joke around, doesn’t engage in small talk, doesn’t care about anything other than getting his money. He doesn’t enjoy killing people, but he won’t hesitate when it makes things even slightly easier for him. And he’s so terrifyingly competent that you have to admire him even if you hope to never encounter a person like him. He’s a charismatic and predatory monster, and Stark (really Donald E. Westlake, writing under a pseudonym) got 24 books out of him.

Movies always get Parker wrong. Originally, The Hunter was the source material for 1967’s moody, impressionistic John Boorman/Lee Marvin art-noir flick Point Blank. That’s a great movie, but not a great Parker adaptation; Marvin just cares too much about his ex-wife and about satisfying his sense of personal justice. He seems sad. Parker isn’t sad. Meanwhile, the dumb-as-shit 2013 Jason Statham movie Parker has Statham talking about his moral code, which no no no. Payback isn’t perfect in that regard. It gives Gibson a love interest and enough of a sense of decorum that he only wants the exact amount that was stolen from him. But he’s still a mean fucker, the type to kill someone just to prove to that person’s boss that he’s perfectly willing to kill someone. (Also, Gibson’s character’s name is Porter, which makes things seems not so bad whenever he does something non-Parkery.)

Payback is half a comedy, and it gets plenty of juice from just how terrible its characters are. Some of that stuff hasn’t aged well. There’s a lot of men punching women and a lot of casual racism, and while it’s obvious that these are bad people doing this stuff, the movie still has a little too much fun depicting it. But a lot of the little touches really are fun. Gibson puts in a mouthguard right before an intentional head-on collision. He rips out a drug dealer’s nose ring even after beating him up, just to show him he can beat him up some more. Gibson gets a nice array of grizzled old character-actors to go up against: William Devane, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson. The movie takes place in some blue-tinted indeterminate past full of rotary phones and big-ass slab cars, and the only thing that really marks it as a 1999 production is how so many of the characters hold their guns sideways.


Gibson is actually the movie’s villain in one intriguing, real-life way: He was initially just a producer, but he ended up pretty much ripping the movie away from first-time director Brian Helgeland when he worried that the final product wasn’t making his character likable enough. Helgeland eventually got to release his version of the movie on DVD, and while I haven’t seen it, it’s apparently vastly different, with no blue filter and a completely different ending. The theatrical version adds plenty of cheese: a smarmy narration from Gibson, a few scream-y guitar solos on the score. But even with all that meddling, it’s still a fun, dark, evil little movie. For instance, Kristofferson, playing a mob boss, only came in when Gibson brought in someone for reshoots, and Kristofferson is just great in the movie: It’s hard to imagine it being better without him. Kristofferson isn’t the type of character who threatens to kill you. He tells you that he’s going to kill you, and then he threatens to keep you alive long enough to make it really, really suck: “I’ll make it last three weeks! I’ll give you a blood transfusion to keep you alive if I have to!” Gibson being an asshole gave us that villain performance, and it’s just one more example of that guy’s assholism working out well for almost everyone.

Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.


Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.

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