Tuesday, June 05, 2007

DVD: Payback, Straight Up: The Director’s Cut (1999/2007)

If there’s a collecting gene, I don’t have it. I can barely bring myself to buy DVDs of movies I enjoy. So imagine my surprise when I picked up one I didn’t like – at least the first time around.

Payback is based on The Hunter, the Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) novel already immortalized on film as Point Blank. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland, making his directorial debut, set out to make a movie closer in tone to Stark’s book. Plots don’t come much sparer: thief Parker (here renamed Porter) is double-crossed and left for dead by his wife and his partner. He then begins killing his way up the Outfit’s ladder to get the money back. Not all of it, you understand. Just his share.

It was a troubled production. Helgeland’s cut was deemed too dark, and he was replaced by another director. A voice-over was added, a new third act (complete with new characters) was grafted on. And the seams showed. I didn’t care for the movie, which played like a violent cartoon. Recently, Helgeland got a chance to recreate his version. The resulting DVD serves as an object lesson in the power of editing. From the same material, he’s crafted a substantially different film.

It may not be meaner, but it’s certainly leaner. The ending is simpler. Kris Kristofferson is no longer in the movie. His character is now only a voice, provided by Sally Kellerman. Much of the over-the-top quality of the ’99 film has been stripped away, which helps Gregg Henry’s performance as Porter’s duplicitous partner. The entire earlier version seemed to play at his manic frequency; with the film’s metabolism slowed down, he registers not as a caricature but as the kind of loudmouth hothead who drifts into a life of crime. I’m also happy to report that the scene in which dominatrix Lucy Liu kicks the crap out of Henry while wearing leather chaps is untouched. (Honestly, that’s the only thing I remembered from eight years ago.)

I’m still not completely sold on the new cut. It may be a question of casting. Not that there’s anything wrong with Mel Gibson; he’s always an inventive actor. But he’s also a star, and somehow that seems wrong for a professional who doesn’t want to call undue attention to himself. Parker’s more the character actor type.

The DVD includes a half-hour documentary detailing the movie’s history, in which all parties speak their piece. The best extra is an interview with Westlake, who says his favorite cinematic Parker isn’t Gibson or even Point Blank’s Lee Marvin, but Robert Duvall in the unsung The Outfit. “What Lee Marvin did was a wonderful destroyed Lee Marvin,” Westlake says. “What Robert Duvall did was a wonderful terse, taciturn Parker.” I’m partial to the movie myself. As Westlake says, it was made without a lot of fooling around – just the way Parker pulls a heist.

More Stark/Westlake: at Mystery*File Steve Lewis considers another of his novels, leading to a conversation with Peter Rozovsky of the fine blog Detectives Beyond Borders. That, in turn, prompts a question from me about one of Stark’s characters, who may also be a Westlake character. Understand?

Miscellaneous: Links

Last night I wasted half an hour looking up Manhattan strip clubs in Google Street View. I should have known others were waaaay ahead of me.

Michael at 2 Blowhards considers the question that haunts me: whither the grown-up Hollywood thriller?

You mean Graham Greene wasn’t above using The Third Man to settle an old score? That makes me feel a lot better.