OK, so I looked at PAYBACK, Brian Helgeland’s 1996 version of Richard Stark/Donald Westlake’s The Hunter. I even looked at the director’s cut as well as the original release. I’ll do it the courtesy of not calling it a remake of John Boorman’s ice-cool 1968 version, POINT BLANK, because it does go back to the book.
Superficially the film is a lot closer to the novel than Boorman’s take, beginning with our protagonist — Parker in the book, Walker in the Boorman, and the softer-sound Porter in this version — walking across the George Washington Bridge. I’ll say up front that in terms of quality, there’s not much to choose between the two edits of this one. Helgeland compromised Stark’s version of Parker, just as he understandably had to compromise James Ellroy’s characters and ending in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, so the thing would get made. Mel Gibson’s version of his film compromises a bit more, is all.
The film looks gritty — while Boorman colour-coded like crazy, Antonioni-style, Helgeland simply spray-paints the sets, locations, costumes and actors an even gun-metal hue. This might be called ONE SHADE OF GRAY. It makes for a distinctive, consistent but ultimately rather claustrophobic look. Nothing is the colour of nature. Ideally, Helgeland would probably have liked to make his modern noir in b&w, but desaturated digital dye-jobs like this do tend to make us feel “starved of Technicolor” as Marius Goring once put it.
The really pathetic material is the sadomasochistic mucking about between baddie Gregg Henry (Stark’s Mal Resnick, renamed Val Resnick — how to explain this scattershot renaming?) and Lucy Liu. Stark makes his villain truly hateful via his mistreatment of his junky girlfriend/hooker/victim. Here we get a farrago of BDSM with the petite LL exchanging passionate punches with the overblown GH. It has nothing to do with real kink, and it makes an already rather weak villain seem silly.
Gregg H.’s bosses turn out to be a starry bunch, escalating from William Devane to Kris Kristofferson all the way to an uncredited James Coburn. Pat Garrett AND Billy the Kid. (The ’96 release also has an uncredited Elizabeth Berridge — remember her from AMADEUS?)
The original release gives Deborah Kara Unger almost nothing to do and the director’s cut reinstates her key scene, which is nevertheless not as effective as the version in the book or the Boorman — because the filmmakers are determined to soften the hero, even though his ruthlessness is in fact his U.S.P. for anyone who’s read the Parker books. Then Maria Bello turns up, looking too much like Unger, and softens things further by becoming romantic interest.
The 2006 director’s cut has a more downbeat end, where maybe Porter isn’t looking so good, while the Gibson version keeps him healthy-ish but subjects him to some protracted torture because Mel is into that, at least cinematically. Making the villain in the picture a masochist seems like Gibson projecting his own cravings into another figure in order to achieve some distance from them, whereas the hammer to the toes sequence seems like Gibson wallowing in tendencies which have achieved ample expression in the LETHAL WEAPON series, BRAVEHEART, and of course THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST…