Payback - * * 1/2*

Mel Gibson takes on his most unsympathetic role yet in the action thriller, Payback. Based on Richard Stark’s novel, The Hunter, previously shot in 1967 as the Lee Marvin thriller Point Blank, Payback tells the tale of a bad guy out for revenge. The film doesn’t aim high, but it hits where it counts.

Porter (Mel Gibson) is dead…or so everyone thinks. He was a skilled thief, who picked the wrong partners, and was double-crossed. Shot and left for dead, he beat the odds and recovered. Now, he’s back…and looking to get even.

But, can Porter trust those who used to be closest to him? How about Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), his wife? Has she betrayed him for her true love: heroin? Porter’s other associates are just as questionable. His best friend, Val (Gregg Henry), is in cahoots with The Outfit. And then, there’s Rosie (Maria Bello), the friendly prostitute who may have been the cause of Porter’s downfall.

Following his near-death experience, Porter distills all of his emotional fury into following a strict code of honor. Those who betrayed him did it for $70,000, and Porter wants it back. He’s willing to forget everything for that 70 grand…but he’s willing to kill anyone to get what’s coming to him…

Porter is very definitely the anti-hero here. And though the film is obviously designed to have the audience root for him, it is made evidently clear that he’s not the nicest guy to be around. You just don’t want to be on his bad side. Gibson’s performance is top notch, though, proving that he can carry a film without relying on his charm. (However, does Gibson have a required torture scene written into the contract for every film he makes?)

Shot primarily in silvery tones, the film seems drained of color. The intent may have been to emulate the cool intensity of Porter’s determination. Or, it may have been an effort to give the film a black-and-white feel, while still adding sparks of color here and there. In either case, the look of Payback is certainly distinctive.

The plot, however, is not so distinctive. It’s a bit slow at the setup, and requires a few leaps to reach its conclusion. But, then again, Payback isn’t about a distinctive plot. It’s all about the thrills and satisfaction of watching a bad guy vigilante with a loose code of ethics beat up the even badder guys.

And on this level of simple thrills, Payback works like a charm. It’s not a movie for someone looking for the traditional hero-versus-villain structure, but anyone seeking a little action escapism will find it here.

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