Even if she wasn’t dressed in leather and cracking a whip, you’d pay heed to Lucy Liu in Payback. There is something about this Asian-American actress that commands attention. As Pearl, a take-no-prisoners dominatrix, Liu proves she can deliver a comic line with the same kick that Pearl administers to her clients. In a shockingly funny scene, Mel Gibson’s Porter — a seen-it-all hood — watches in horror as Pearl goes to work with a nut-mashing enthusiasm that leaves her john broken and begging for mercy. Giving Porter the once-over, Pearl deadpans, “I have a few minutes before my next appointment — interested?” Gibson’s double take is priceless, if you can tear your eyes away from Liu long enough to notice.
Many TV watchers are already weekly slaves to Liu in her role as the litigious Ling Woo on Ally McBeal. And Ling is not easy to like. She sues a DJ for sexual harassment and a plastic surgeon’s nurse for having unenhanced breasts, and she even threatens her boyfriend, Richard Fish (Greg Germann), a partner in Ally’s law firm. Yet Fish is drawn in like the rest of us. Given her kinky, ice-queen roles, Liu puts a new twist on saying, “I Love Lucy.”
Born in Queens, New York — her parents were Chinese immigrants — Liu says she likes playing characters who “don’t do what society expects.” No danger of that happening to this rebel graduate from the University of Michigan. Next up are roles with Clint Eastwood in True Crime and Mike Myers in Austin Powers 2. And if Liu has any problems with my review of Payback, let’s hope she doesn’t sue. To borrow an immortal Fishism: bygones.
Porter, a hood with no time for a first name since he’s so hellbent on revenge, Mel Gibson burns on a high flame. First, Porter’s friend Val (a pungently sleazy Gregg Henry) runs off with his wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and the money all three had stolen from a crime syndicate called the Outfit. Then Val shoots Porter point-blank and leaves him for dead. But Porter isn’t dead: He’s back, he’s baaad, and he’s big-time pissed. Watch him fire a bullet at Val and then grind his foot in the wound, a sick smile playing on his face. Porter wants his money — only $70,000, but it’s a matter of principle. If Porter doesn’t get it, Val and everyone in the Outfit — from the lowest wanna-be (a terrific David Paymer) to the corporate honchos (William Devane, Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn) — are going down.
Payback is a brutally entertaining crime drama that should have been a little more brutal and a little less entertaining. How the balance shifted is a lesson in the power dynamics of Hollywood. Payback is the brainchild of screenwriter Brian Helgeland, 37, a former commercial fisherman in Massachusetts who came to L.A. in 1986 and graduated from writing horror flicks (976-EVIL) to winning a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar last year for L.A. Confidential. Having tailored scripts for Sly Stallone (Assassins), Kevin Costner (The Postman) and Gibson (Conspiracy Theory), Helgeland knew the pressures of dealing with mega-egos. Since Payback would be Helgeland’s debut as a director, he was determined to stay unslick, low budget and star-free.
Then Gibson saw Helgeland’s script for Payback and wanted in. The source for the story was The Hunter, a novel that British director John Boorman had filmed in 1967 as Point Blank with Lee Marvin. Point Blank remains a landmark of Sixties cinema, thanks to the stylistic audacity of Boorman’s flashbacks and flash-forwards, and Marvin’s rigorous portrayal of a prick. As Boorman said, “The profound unease we feel in identifying with an evil character in a movie is the recognition that we may be capable of such evil.”
Could Gibson afford to dial down his audience appeal so drastically? The star had taken risks before — jeez, he played Hamlet. But Helgeland was rightly skeptical. Gibson had pissed away a potentially great portrayal of moral disintegration in Helgeland’s Conspiracy Theory for the same image-protecting reasons. But the star persisted, and Helgeland caved. During shooting in Chicago (to give the film, whose location is not specified, a cold, urban feel), Gibson praised the rookie director.hat is, until Helgeland showed Gibson a rough cut of Payback and the star saw just how unheroic and repellent Porter was — never mind that those things were a given going in. Gibson wanted rewrites; Helgeland wouldn’t do them. So Gibson brought in Terry Hayes, who had scripted The Road Warrior. Gibson wanted Helgeland to direct the new material (roughly the last third of the film); Helgeland refused. So Gibson brought in a new director (he won’t say who), telling Premiere, “It wasn’t an ego thing, I just wanted the film to be really good.”
Is Payback really good? In the popcorn sense, it certainly delivers on mindless escapism. In the artistic sense, let’s just say that Payback is a long way from Point Blank. Boorman’s film shows us the fragmented fantasy of a dying man who dreams of vanquishing a violent world that he helped create. Gibson’s film — what else can you call it now? — isn’t interested in teasing out a metaphysical subtext. It’s a thrill ride in a kinky theme park, especially when Lucy Liu (see sidebar) shows up as Pearl, a whip-cracking dominatrix who beats these hoods at their own S&M game. It’s a romance when Porter hooks up with Rosie (the lovely Maria Bello of E.R.), a high-priced hooker he once loved. It’s also a caper flick with action, jokes, torture (Porter gets his toes crushed by a sledgehammer), a kidnap plot involving the horny teenage son of crime lord Kristofferson and an unmotivated happy ending that Helgeland could never have imagined. Payback, as you’ve surely guessed by now, doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Is Gibson the villain? He is if you mourn the movie that might have been. Helgeland has a clear talent for tart dialogue and atmosphere that help define character. But Gibson undercuts the movie and a solidly credible performance by growing Porter a conscience. Offscreen, Gibson is better at holding his scruples in check. Wise up, Helgeland, that’s Hollywood. If Gibson is hard and cold and sick and twisted, then so is every power actor — Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner and Sly Stallone, to name a few — who ever kicked a director’s ass to polish his own image. The trick is to not sell your soul to those Hollywood devils. Wise up, Helgeland, that’s payback.