Way back in 1999, I remember this movie coming out, but I didn't really care, because I wasn't much of a Mel Gibson fan. And even since I began reading the Parker novels and found out that Payback (1999) was an adaptation of The Hunter, the first Parker novel by Richard Stark, I've been curious, but I wasn't going to make it a priority.
You kind of have to understand where action movies were in 1999. It was an era that loved (I mean loved) formula and plot point checkboxes every movie had to contain. Once you knew the formula, you were going to see action stars basically go through the motions, and by the late 1990's, these movies were going through the motions in pretty terrific style as new filming techniques and ideas were lifted from Asian action movies and cinematography techniques changed. But the scripts were beginning to feel pretty anemic as action heroes became overly familiar, their tropes predictable, and, frankly, maybe got a little long in the tooth for what they were doing. Really, if superhero movies and The Matrix hadn't come along, it's a pretty good question where action movies would have gone, but even as an action-movie guy, I was losing interest, and I was squarely in the intended demographic as a 24-year old dude at the time of this movie's release.
But last night I found this movie available for free on Amazon Prime, so I figured - hey, why not?
I've read the novel the movie is loosely based on, The Hunter, at least twice as a book (I think it's actually been three times. It reads fast.), and I've read the Darwyn Cooke graphic novel adaptation at least three times. And I've seen the Lee Marvin film, Point Blank, at least three times (once with Angie Dickinson in the room). So, I have opinions. But part of that was knowing that the movie wouldn't be a straight adaptation. Author Richard Stark insisted on changing the name of his protagonist when his books were translated to film, apparently only okay with the character retaining the name if the movies remained true to the books, which they never did.*
I got pretty excited in the first twenty minutes of Payback. It was remarkably close to the book, if with a darkly comedic tone rather than the molar-grinding intensity of the novel. But I could accept the change, not that big of a deal. Parker books were always a wink between the author and the reader, a "you think that was nuts? How about this?" sort of one-upmanship of itself, leading more or less to the appropriately titled Butcher's Moon, after which, Stark took a break for two decades.
And then Lucy Liu shows up as "Pearl", a sort of unnecessary distraction not in the book, a hooker who likes to give and take a punch (a door opened by GoldenEye's "Xenia Onatopp"), and then there's a romantic plotline shoved in there (we have to have something for the girlfriends, said the '90's), which sort of defangs the point of The Hunter. Hapless cops wander into the action for comedic relief, and, of course, Mel Gibson must have it in his contract that he will be tortured in every one of his movies, because there's the prerequisite "how will he get out of this?" bound-to-a-chair scene, and at that point, the movie is way off the rails and is now every other movie you'd seen between 1986-ish and 1999.
It's not much fun to watch a movie devolve over the course of its running time and fall into cliche and standard set-pieces especially when it began in a way you thought looked promising. In the end, what kills this movie and killed 90's action movies, is that the highly recognizable beats and recycled actors doing recycled bits leave movies like this feeling hollow and pointless. It doesn't matter how good the set-up or premise in Act 1, if we're in Act 3 and Mel Gibson is driving off beaten but heroic to go have implied sex with the girlfriend/ hostage obtained inbetween murders, there's nothing there to really latch on to or even find interesting.
Once you've got that out-of-the-box action movie feeling, what was earned in the opening reel now feels cheap and ridiculous, doing both the source material and work done to get the movie some attention and get made a disservice.
I didn't hate the movie, it just made me think a bit about why it didn't work, what likely happened (studio notes. Lots of studio notes), and how that era of action movie-making wound up eating itself, paving the way for costumed adventurers and sci-fi CGI nightmares.
If you're thinking of watching this one, just go watch Lee Marvin in Point Blank instead. That movie, no matter how different the plot, seems to have its head around why the novel and character work.
*immediately after Richard Stark (real name: Donald Westlake) passed, his family licensed the name and let someone make a mediocre Parker film called... Parker, starring Jason Statham, and not worth your time.