Through the Past Starkly

While the emotions may be softer, the violence isn't, and those who are squeamish about such things should be prepared to turn away or cover their eyes during several scenes. It may not help. Helgeland is savvy enough to know that the most effective violence is that which isn't shown. By far the most cringeworthy moment here merely shows us Porter's reaction to what is being done to him.

For those who come to the film with no baggage, who have never read Westlake or seen Point Blank, Helgeland's film is, despite the occasional gruesomeness, a polished, fast-moving thriller with a Nineties style. Gibson negotiates Porter's not-always-plausible changes believably, sometimes evoking memories of his Martin Riggs character in the Lethal Weapon films. Interestingly, although Porter occasionally addresses us in voice-over, suggesting that he is remembering the story, Helgeland doesn't cleave to this point of view.

The supporting cast is uniformly first rate. Gregg Henry , one of those guys you've seen in a million bit film roles and bigger parts in TV movies, should make a big leap forward with this performance. He makes Resnick a totally loathsome villain, an utter bully, and, like most bullies, an even more complete coward. The moment when Resnick realizes that Porter is alive and looking for him is priceless. David Paymer and Lucy Liu are also memorable in far broader roles, but John Glover, who shows up for about two minutes (was his part trimmed?), and Bill Duke are wasted. (Duke is featured in a subplot that could have easily been omitted.)

Helgeland makes a solid debut as director here, finding a new angle through which to view the Parker character, and doing so without exhausting the possibilities. Who would have thought that a pulp paperback original from the early Sixties would prove rich enough to bring forth two film adaptations and still leave room for a third?

Payback.
Directed by Brian Helgeland. Written by Brian Helgeland and Terry Hayes. Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake). Starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, William Devane, James Coburn, Bill Duke, and Kris Kristofferson.

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