Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut (2006) / Thriller-Comedy
MPAA Rated: Unrated, but would be R for strong violence, language, drug content, and sexual content
Running Time: 90 min.
Cast: Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, Gregg Henry, Lucy Liu, William Devane, David Paymer, Jack Conley, Bill Duke, Deborah Kara Unger, James Coburn, Freddy Rodriguez, Sally Kellerman (voice)
Director: Brian Helgeland
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland (based on the book, "The Hunter", by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake))
Although he did receive credit for the film, as he did direct about 70% of the scenes released in the theatrical release of Payback, writer-director Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale) left the project before production wrapped. The studio (Paramount) wanted some major changes to be done in what was his first directorial effort, trying to curb some of the nastiness that Helgeland had given to his main character. Essentially, their complaints came down to three things: they thought the main character, a bad guy, should be a little less brutal, they didn't like the ambiguous ending, and they didn't like the killing of a dog in one scene. Helgeland wanted to work with the studio, but what the studio wanted was a completely different movie than the one he was making, resulting in his removal.
Star Mel Gibson (Signs, What Women Want), who had picked Helgeland to direct the film based on his script to begin with, brought in a new, unnamed director (subsequently leaked as production designer John Myhre) and screenwriter (Terry Hayes) to make the changes the studio wanted. The result became a film that included voice-over narration to explain the main character's motivation, a toning down of his instances where he clearly crosses the line, a new intro, and a completely new final third of the film. Although these new scenes kept the gritty tone and sass of Helgeland's original, they weren't Helgeland's scenes, and though still considered by many as a good film, given that most of the filming had been completed by Helgeland before his departure, the chance was there for Helgeland to make the movie that he wanted, in a similar way that Richard Donner had done with his Director's Cut of Superman II.
Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut is probably not exactly how Helgeland would have released his film back in 1999, but it's as close as it's going to get. He does make some changes to his original work, adding some things here and there that he had been thinking of taking out back in 1999, and also removing some shots or dialogue that he probably would have kept in. Perhaps the biggest fundamental difference comes in the score of the film. Trying to work with the original score over the new scenes just wasn't working for him, so he brought in another musician, Scott Stambler (Rumor Has It, Alex & Emma), to help bridge the scenes in between, only to ditch the original score outright in favor of a brand new score. Helgeland also ditches the bleached out, blue hue of the theatrical release in favor of a different contrast scheme, bringing in full color for all of the scenes, with a more stark look for outdoor scenes and warmer interior shots.
Although still a funny film, Helgeland's cut is a more serious, and also more violent version than the one that the studio would ultimately release. We aren't given clear motivation as to why Gibson's character, Porter, is as violent as he is, but we do get to understand his anger and frustration in trying to get his money, and his life back. There is no voice-over narration to explain his thought process, and we no longer have the Kris Kristofferson scenes, like the boxing match and the one where Porter is tortured mercilessly with a hammer, effectively making us want him to get bloody revenge on the members of the syndicate that defiantly refuses to pay back the money that he feels rightfully belongs to him. It is a bleaker, more dastardly film that is more in keeping with the retro-1970s vibe that Helgeland was going for than the theatrical release.
Although the common trend among critics, when faced with the decision over which cut of the film is better, is to choose the director's vision, it's a tough call with Payback, primarily because the theatrical release has had its day in the sun for almost eight years, and has been thoroughly digested and accepted as a release worthy of admiration and praise. Helgeland's version does also work very well, and it is a good film, but the theatrical cut also has its strengths as well, playing up more laughs and adding an interesting pathos to the mix. Ultimately, I'm grading the film's the same, with a slight edge to Helgeland's cut, although this is perhaps only because it is the version I've seen most recently. I do believe both are good films in their own particular ways. If you've seen and enjoyed Payback, this Director's Cut, which is substantially different enough to warrant its own release, definitely merits your consideration.
©2007 Vince Leo