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Payback is a 1999 American Neo-noir[3] crime film written and directed by Brian Helgeland in his directorial debut, and starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, and David Paymer. It is based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake using the pseudonym Richard Stark, which had earlier been adapted into the 1967 film noir classic Point Blank, directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin. In 2006, Helgeland issued a director's cut that differs substantially from the version released by the studio.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byBrian Helgeland
Produced byBruce Davey
Screenplay byBrian Helgeland
Terry Hayes
Based onThe Hunter
by Richard Stark
Music byChris Boardman
CinematographyEricson Core
Edited byKevin Stitt
Distributed byParamount Pictures
(United States)
Warner Bros.[1]
Release date
  • February 5, 1999 (1999-02-05)
Running time
101 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$90 million[2]
Box office$161.6 million[2]


In a kitchen of an underground abortionist, a former medical doctor puts on surgical gloves and drinks a glass of whiskey. Face down on the kitchen table is a barely conscious Porter (played by Mel Gibson), the film's main character, severely wounded with two large bullet wounds in his back. The doctor pours whiskey on Porter's back to sterilize the area and digs out the bullets. Porter spends five months recuperating.

Porter begins tracking down gangster Val Resnick and Lynn, his estranged wife and a heroin addict, both of whom betrayed Porter following a $140,000 heist from the local Chinese triads. After Lynn shot Porter and the two left him for dead, Val rejoined the Outfit, using $130,000 of the heist money to repay an outstanding debt. Porter is intent on reclaiming his $70,000 cut.

Porter first tracks down and confronts his wife Lynn, who has become a prostitute. After seeing how low she has sunk, Porter takes pity on Lynn and confines her to her bedroom, only to discover the next day that she has died from a heroin overdose.

Porter enlists the help of Rosie, a call girl, who is affiliated with the Outfit. Porter once served as her limo driver, during which time they had a one-night stand. Lynn's jealousy and the fact that Porter had cheated on her with Rosie led to Resnick and her double-crossing Porter. To get to Resnick, Porter must deal with a lowlife drug dealer and gambler named Arthur Stegman, crime bosses from the Outfit, the Triads, and two corrupt police detectives named Hicks and Leary.

Resnick is seeing a dominatrix named Pearl, who has connections with the Triads, when Porter violently re-enters his life. Resnick goes to the Outfit to explain why Porter is demanding $70,000. Resnick is killed by Porter in Rosie's apartment when Porter catches him abusing Rosie. Porter then kills three of the Outfit's hitmen, who have been sent to kill him. That evening, Porter confronts Carter in his office and threatens to kill him if he refuses to pay the $70,000. Carter explains to Porter that he is only an underboss and is not authorized to make any financial decisions. Porter then makes Carter phone the boss, whose name is Bronson. When Bronson refuses over the phone, Porter carries out his threat and kills Carter.

With the aid of Rosie, he kidnaps Bronson's son Johnny. He then arranges for Hicks and Leary to be busted by their own colleagues in Internal Affairs by planting Leary's fingerprints on the gun Porter used to kill Resnick as well as stealing Hicks's badge and leaving it with the gun in Resnick's hand.

Porter is captured by the Outfit's men after a shootout involving Stegman, Pearl, and the Triads, which ends with Stegman and all of Pearl's men being killed (although Pearl survives). Porter is taken to a warehouse, where he is beaten and tortured for several hours by men belonging to Bronson's associate Fairfax until Bronson arrives with $130,000 and uses a more gruesome method to force Porter to give up the location of Bronson's son.

Porter is locked inside a car trunk and taken by Bronson, Fairfax and their men to an apartment that had previously been rigged with plastic explosives. After his captors meet an explosive demise, Porter goes to pick up Rosie. Leaving Johnny behind, the two take off with the money the mob owed him and drive off to Canada to begin a new life.



The film was shot during September/November 1997, in Chicago and Los Angeles, though neither city is referred to in the film. Although credited as director, Brian Helgeland's cut of the film was not the theatrical version released to audiences. After the end of principal photography, Helgeland's version was deemed too dark for the mainstream public. Following a script rewrite by Terry Hayes, director Helgeland was replaced by the production designer John Myhre,[4] who reshot 30% of the film.[5] The intent was to make the Porter character accessible. The film's tagline became: "Get Ready to Root for the Bad Guy." A potentially controversial scene which arguably involves spousal abuse was excised and more plot elements were added to the third act. After 10 days of reshoots, a new opening scene and voiceover track also were added, and Kris Kristofferson walked on as a new villain.[6]

Helgeland's version, Straight Up: The Director's Cut, was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and HD DVD on April 10, 2007, after an October 2006 run at the Austin Film Festival. The Director's Cut version features a female Bronson, voiced by Sally Kellerman, does not include the voice-over by Porter and several Bronson-related scenes, and has an entirely different, ambiguous ending. A June 4, 2012, look at "movies improved by directors' cuts" by The A.V. Club described Payback: Straight Up as "a marked improvement on the unrulier original."[7]


Mel Gibson stated in a short interview released as a DVD extra that it "would've been ideal to shoot in black and white." He noted that "people want a color image" and that the actual film used a bleach bypass process to tint the film. In addition to this, the production design used muted shades of red, brown, and grey for costumes, sets, and cars for further effect.[8]


Box officeEdit

Payback was well received at the box office. The film made $21,221,526 in its opening weekend in North America. It eventually grossed $81,526,121 in North America and $80,100,000 in other territories, totaling $161,626,121 worldwide.[2]

Critical receptionEdit

The review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 54% based on 74 reviews from critics, and a weighted average of 5.9 out of 10. The website's critical consensus states, "Sadistic violence and rote humor saddle a predictable action premise."[9] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B-" on an A+ to F scale.[10]

Roger Ebert gave the film a three-star rating (out of four) in his review, writing, "There is much cleverness and ingenuity in Payback, but Mel Gibson is the key. The movie wouldn't work with an actor who was heavy on his feet, or was too sincere about the material."[11]


  1. ^ "Payback (1999) - Overview -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  2. ^ a b c "Payback (1999)". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  3. ^ Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; Ursini, James; Porfirio, Robert (2010). Film Noir: The Encyclopaedia. Overlook Duckworth (New York). ISBN 978-1-59020-144-2.
  4. ^ "Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut". High-Def Digest. April 6, 2007. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  5. ^ Faraci, Devin (April 6, 2007). "Exclusive Interview: Brian Helgeland (Payback Director's Cut DVD)". Archived from the original on March 5, 2011. Retrieved March 5, 2011. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  6. ^ Abel, Glenn (April 16, 2007). "Mel Gibson's lost kick-ass film". DVD Spin Doctor. Archived from the original on March 5, 2011. Retrieved March 5, 2011. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  7. ^ "The kindest cut: 14-plus movies improved by directors' cuts". The A.V. Club. June 4, 2012. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  8. ^ Mel Gibson (1999). Payback (DVD). Warner Home Video. EAN 7321900173438. Retrieved September 1, 2014.
  9. ^ "Payback (1999)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
  10. ^ "CinemaScore".
  11. ^ Ebert, Roger (February 5, 1999). "Payback Movie Review & Film Summary (1999)". Retrieved September 3, 2015.

External linksEdit