Payback – Straight Up: The Director’s Cut


When Parker, the Jason Statham / Jennifer Lopez movie was released, they used a rather obscure though witty strapline that only fans would probably enjoy:

“Payback has a new name”

Why is this amusing? Well it helps if you know that the film is the first of the movies based on Richard Stark’s ‘Parker’ books that was allowed to use the character’s name (previously it was changed to ‘Walker’, ‘Porter’ etc.) – and it also refers to Payback, the previous Stark adaptation, one with an exceptionally tumultuous post-production history. To know more, buckle up …

The following movie vs book review is submitted for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his site, Sweet Freedom, and the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – click here for links to the reviews.

“They knew he was a bastard, they knew his big hands were born to slap with …”

Payback was an adaptation of The Hunter, the 1962 thriller that Westlake used to introduce his anti-hero Parker (no first name) and his nom-de-Noir, ‘Richard Stark’. Many of the books in the Parker series have been filmed, but one of the consistent oddities of the adaptations – until the Statham movie that is – was that for contractual reasons the protagonist has always been either renamed or altered into a completely new character. He is known as ‘Porter’ for Payback, the version of The Hunter turned into a Mel Gibson vehicle written and directed by Brian Helgeland, already one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters (credits include LA Confidential and Mystic River) here making his debut at the helm. But something funny happened on the way to the cinema …

In the book Parker, his wife and their confederate, Mal Resnick, double-cross each other after pulling a heist. Before Parker can kill Resnick, he is shot by his wife and left for dead in a burning house. But Parker escapes and swears bloody revenge on his ex-partners and to get back the loot he is owed. The premise is simple enough but the Stark paperback style – spare, stripped-down prose, a plot with plenty of unexpected reversals and a hero so hardboiled that men literally faint at the sight of him – makes the series utterly compelling. Westlake had originally meant to bump off the main character at the end but his editor suggested he becomes the star of a series and for the next 12 years he provided some of the fastest and most exciting American entertainment to be found between soft covers before retiring for a quarter of a century with the long and bloody farewell that was Butcher’s Moon (review coming to Fedora soon-ish).

“Get ready to root for the bad guy”

The 1999 film Payback begins with a voice-over narration, the half-dead ‘Porter’ explaining why he is having bullets removed from his back courtesy of a soused, back-street quack. Recovered, he reaches the city (actually Chicago, though we are never told this), steals some money and tracks down his now drug-addicted wife (played with her usual no-nonsense sexy toughness by Deborah Kara Unger) – we then flashback to her betrayal of him, manipulated by Resnick (a great performance by Gregg Henry, who manages to make his appalling OTT persona utterly hypnotic) into thinking he had been unfaithful. She kills herself and Porter now tracks down Resnick, who used the loot to buy himself back into ‘The Outfit’.

We follow Porter’s progress as he attempts to get his money back as he runs into crooked cops (“Is there any other kind” he quips on the soundtrack) and oily middlemen (including David Paymer, William Devane and James Coburn) before finally making it to the upper echelons of the organisation, ultimately kidnapping the son of the boss (played by Kris Kristofferson) to get his money and flee with an old girlfriend (Maria Bello). It works pretty well as an homage to gritty, 1970s cinema and indeed most of the obvious contemporary references to the 90s are removed to give it a generic feel. Gibson is very good casting, Devane and Coburn are great as senior Outfit operatives and a young Lucy Liu makes for a great gangster with a sideline in S&M. But this was not the film that Helgeland shot – or rather, it was only about 65% of it after huge reshoots took place when the film’s ultra violent tone tested badly. Revisions would include a car explosion, a semblance of a happy ending as well as Gibson’s stock-in-trade, an elongated torture scene, all shot with anonymous efficiency by either Paul Abscal or John Myhre depending on who you believe (no, I hadn’t heard of either of them before either). But what about the original?

In 2006 Helgeland’s darker original version was eventually released on DVD as Payback: Straight Up – The Director’s Cut, which also deviates quite a lot from the original novel but is much closer to its nihilistic tone (‘spirit’ seems the wrong word somehow). The differences are, well, quite stark – Kristofferson doesn’t exist at all, his role now a disembodied voice on the phone (played by Sally Kellerman); the annoying but innocent dog shot by Resnick stays dead (told you he was a bad guy); and the last 30 minutes is a completely new showdown between Porter and the Outfit’s henchmen at a subway station that is much closer to the finale of the original novel (and it’s almost certainly fatal intent). This tougher, less romantic, film is also much shorter and works infinitely better on its own terms and as an adaptation. I shan’t say more to avoid spoilers, but if you only see this film once, see the director’s cut whatever you do.

DVD Availability: Both versions of the film have been released separately in excellent condition, with Gibson graciously appearing in the extras to explain why he felt the need to soften Helgeland’s original cut. The Blu-ray release brings together both cuts with all the extras and is a fine package as the two films really are different enough to spend time with (they even look and sound like completely different movies – they have different music scores while the 90’s cut is much cooler and steelier photographically thanks to the use of the ‘bleach bypass method’, the other much warmer)

Payback – Straight Up (2006)
Director: Brian Helgeland
Producer: Bruce Davey
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Cinematography: Ericson Core
Art Direction: Richard Hoover
Music: Scott Stambler
Cast: Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, Gregg Henry, Deborah Kara Unger, Lucy Liu, David Paymer, Billy Duke, Sally Kellerman, William Devane, James Coburn

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, Donald Westlake, Film Noir, Parker, Richard Stark and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Payback – Straight Up: The Director’s Cut

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Great write-up for this undervalued film adaptation, Sergio. I have both versions, but this one I prefer.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Interesting isn’t it how the original crack at this one stayed closer to the novel in a lot of ways. I’ll confess, the series and the film are a little brutal for my taste. Not saying anything about the talent involved, just my preference. Still, an excellent review and discussion as ever.

    • Thanks Margot – and I understand what you’re saying because these films are violent (the books much less so in my view, though very hardboiled none the less) and while one can console oneself that this is the real of fake movie violence, it’s not exactly a fun place to visit! There is also a fair amount of humour too though (as you’d expect from a self-respecting Westlake adaptation, even of the Stark variety)

  3. Colin says:

    That Blu-ray sounds like the way to go on this one. I actually like the idea of a director’s cut being shorter than the theatrical version – it almost always appears the other way round, and is often an artistically redundant idea as the new footage is frequently no more than padding that was, quite rightly, originally removed.

    • Thanks Colin – I really recommend the Blu – it’s pretty inexpensive too. What’s interesting here too is that Helgeland did in fact re-think his approach because his initial cut was never finalised so this layer edit is his only complete version and apparently he did pare it down even compared with what he original planned at the end of the 90s. This is one case where the ‘Director’s Cut’ really, really means something whereas normally, whether it’s the Star Trek films or even The Shining, most movies rarely benefit from having stuff put back in.

      • Colin says:

        I’ve reached the point where the label “Director’s Cut” often puts me off. These extended versions generally end up worse than the theatrical cut.
        The cynic in me has come to view them as just another marketing ploy to get people to buy the product again for no good reason – the extra material either being deliberately held back for this purpose, or simply swept up off the cutting room floor. As such, it’s refreshing to see the term used to mean something of artistic worth has been attempted.

        • I think you are absolutely right – certainly when a ‘harder cut’ is offered for the likes of Taken 2 for instance, I can keep my enthusiasmm well and truly in check! On the other hand, it is often necessary to keep films at a maximum length for contractual reasons (De Palma had to deliver a 2-hour vur of Black Dahlia for instance, which is why original director David fincher left the project) and I have a lot of enthusiasm for the idea that the home video options should include a more flexible approach – it is a bit destabilising to live in an age of alternate versions but if they are made at the time they can really work it seems to me (Dances With Wolves is I think an example fo a film where the longer cut is really better).

          • Colin says:

            Well it all comes down to the artistic merit, or lack of it, as far as I’m concerned.
            If a filmmaker has been forced by the terms of the contract to pare down his original vision, then I reckon an extended release for home consumption is certainly warranted. No arguments from me there.

          • Apparently in Sweden, as happened with the Stieg Larsson series, it is common practice for the first title to be released at the cinema and then the others go straight to TV, meaning that the theatrical cut is in fact even then a pared down version of the much longer TV original, which is then made available on DVD.

          • Colin says:

            Which all goes to prove we definitely live in confusing times. 🙂

          • You just said a cotton picking; mouthful

  4. When I first heard of the Director’s Cut, I was skeptical for all the reasons mentioned. I’m glad that I took a chance. I much prefer it to Gibson’s toned down version and own it on DVD. As a matter of disclosure, I do have a VHS of the Gibson PAYBACK, but no means anymore to play it if I even had the notion.

    We may never get a true version of A Parker novel as the money men want that friendly, heroic character that most movie viewers fancy.

    • I think you’re absolutely right there Randy – just not perceived as being audience-friendly enough – probably better for a cable TV show. In fact, that sounds like a good idea, darn it!

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    I saw the Gibson version but not the Statham one.

  6. Patrick says:

    I liked the Jason Statham movie very much personally. I also loved “Payback”. Luckily, I saw the director’s cut first. I recently saw the original release and was shocked at just how dumb the theatrical ending was, complete with a silly one-liner from Parker — I mean, Porter — when he kills all the bad guys. The director’s cut does what the novel did with the ending, and although it ends on a more ambiguous note than the novel, it works. (Of course, I just love that original final scene with the detectives, so I would’ve loved to see that, but you can’t have everything.)

    • Thanks Patrick – it is interesting to look at how Payback was altered to what was perceived as being commercially necessary – it is certainly much less artistically worthwhile, let’s put it that way!

  7. Yvette says:

    Oh Sergio, you must know I’d never see a movie where a dog is shot and killed for no reason. Not that I can think of any reason which would work for me short of rabies or maniacal manipulation by an evil entity. (i.e. Stephen King, et al) HAHA!!! I can’t help it, I’m a wimp. Plus I’m generally not a big fan of dark and nasty. But as usual, I enjoyed reading your take on this movie – come to think of it, I’d enjoy reading your take on any movie. 🙂 Well done, kiddo.

    • Thanks Yvette, you’re a peach! But what about Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird? I know what you mean about canines on screen though, but he is the utter villain of the piece! They do joke about it on the ‘making of’ on the DVD, saying that the flabbergasted movie executive said to the director (I paraphrase): “You mean he doesn’t get the girl, he doesn’t get the money and you shoot the dog?” to which Helgeland smartly, but unsuccessfully, countered, “Would you settle for two out of three?”

  8. Sergio, I don’t think revenge films are going to lose their entertainment value ever; there’s a whole bunch of them out there with only the plots and characters being different. I have seen PAYBACK though I seem to have entirely missed PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP and the Jason Statham version that I wouldn’t mind seeing if only for the action. I like Gibson as an actor: there is a humaneness about his tough-guy characters. Bruce Willis has that kind of appeal. Thanks for a fine analysis of the two versions, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant, very much. Hope you get to see this other version too – I really think it’s worth the effort. I do like Gibson in a lot of his films but this is one of those cases where the real-life image keeps intruding to a detrimental effect, at least for me

  9. John says:

    “…sly edgy carnival of violence” says the blurb on the DVD box. Carnival of violence? Wow. That’s never the reason I used to go to carnivals. Hyperbole in movie reviewing seems to be de rigueur these days. I think I saw this a while ago, but for a number of reasons I don’t recall any of it. I have to say I couldn’t stand POINT BLANK, the first movie version of The Hunter, mostly because of its very strange flashback sequences that gave me a headache. I know POINT BLANK is supposedly a classic and genius because of that structure but I couldn’t make sense of any of the story. Plus, the constant shouting and yelling of the actors didn’t make it anymore watchable for me. I don’t think I’d want to watch any more versions of The Hunter. Excessively violent movies always leave me empty. Ironically, I am not bothered by reading excessively violent books. Clearly it’s the strong visuals and editing in movies that affect me more deeply.

    • Well, fair enough John! I love movies that dally with the formal properties of film and as a result love Point Blank, a film that seems to me best understood if one assumes that actually Walker never got off the island in the first place and that the whole narrative is a Bierce-like death dream. The director’s cut of Payback is genuinely tough but I think impressive piece of neo-noir but I do completely understand your take on it – I just wish I were more persuasive!

  10. TracyK says:

    I have seen and enjoyed the Gibson version. It has been a while. But have not seen, was not even aware of, the Director’s Cut. That should be interesting, should we decide to try it some day. We could Netflix it. Very interesting post, makes me want to try the books. (May have a long time ago.)

    • Thanks TracyK – the books are prototypical paperback neo-noirs from the sixties: short, succinct, zesty, blackly humorous and told with great verve, which is what the director’s cut of Payback tries, and mostly succeeeds, in capturing.

  11. Jeff Flugel says:

    Great review of…well, both cuts of PAYBACK, Sergio! I know a lot of people prefer the Director’s Cut of this film, but I fell in love with the theatrical version first and it remains my preferred cut, though Helgeland’s version is very worthy, too, and certainly far more true to the tone of the novel, I’m guessing. I have the Blu-Ray containing both cuts, plus the frank and interesting docu covering the behind-the-scenes struggles that resulted in the two versions. Excellent value, that disc.

    • Cheers Jeff – both versions definitely have their virtues but I found that by being able to look at just why and how the changes were made it really did make me like the theatrical cut less – fact is though that they feel like very different animals (albeit the same species) and actually quite to hard to compare in some respects, which is certainly weird!

  12. CMrok93 says:

    Only saw the original, and from what I hear, I am better off? I don’t know, it’s all very mixed. However, I will say that the flick is fun and by far, one of Mel’s dirtier moments in terms of being an action-star. Good review Sergio.

    • Thanks very much Dan – if by ‘original’ you mean the director’s cut, then it is absolutely the best version in my view the theatrical version, with its voice over and desaturated colour scheme, is stylistically more ;noir’ oerhaps so has some plus points too.

  13. Pingback: The name is Parker … | Tipping My Fedora

  14. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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