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 non-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 cracks in the soundtrack) , oily middlemen (including David Paymer, William Devane and James Coburn) until he makes 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 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