Parker on the screen #5: Payback Straight Up (2006)

The idea to review every screen iteration of Donald Westlake’s crime character, Parker, originated much earlier in the year, when Melbourne was in deep in winter and the middle of hard Covid lockdown. Melbourne is out of that lockdown now and summer is here, and I am much busier, hence the delay since my last entry.

Anyway, back to it with the next Parker film, Brian Helgeland’s neo noir, Payback Straight Up (2006). This is retelling of the very first Parker novel, The Hunter, published in 1962 and, of course, first filmed by John Boorman as the immortal Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin (and which I wrote about on this site here on the 50th anniversary of the film).

Helgeland, who started out in the movie business as a scriptwriter, is not someone whose work I am particularly across. He did the script for the adaptation of Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (1997), which I really liked. The same year he also performed wordsmith duty on the script for the simply abysmal post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner vehicle, The Postman. The 1999 film adaptation of The Hunter, titled Payback, was his first outing as a director (he also wrote the script) and by all accounts it was an exceptionally troubled shoot. The studio backing the film, Paramount, baulked at how violent Helgeland’s version of the story was and deemed it too dark for mainstream audiences. Helgeland was replaced as director by production designer John Myhre, who reshot around thirty percent of the film, mainly changes aimed at making Porter, as the character of Parker is called in the film, more human.

Needless to say, Helgeland was very dissatisfied with the final product. Eventually, however, he was able to release a director’s cut of his filmin 2006. In a perfect world, I would review both Payback and Payback Straight Up. But as 2020 has emphasised, this is not a perfect world and I do not have the time to do both films. I have seen both and they are very different films, but have decided to go with what I think is the sleeker, superior (sort of) movie based on Helgelan’s original vision, Payback Straight Up.

The second caveat of sorts related to this piece concerns Mel Gibson, who plays Porter. As an actor, Gibson has appeared in some of my favourite Australian films, the first two movies in the Mad Max franchise, and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), all core entrants in rebirth of Australian cinema that occur in the 1970s. As a person, however, he obviously has some pretty bad racial views and he does not appear too crash hot on women, either. Let’s just say while I am firmly in the separate the artist from the art camp, Gibson stretches this to the limit, and leave it at that.

I think that anyone who has been following my series about Parker on the screen will be pretty familiar with the plot of The Hunter – a heist gone wrong in which Parker is betrayed by one of his crew, Mal Resnick, and Parker’s attempts to retrieve the $45,000 share of the job Resnick stole from him. It was wonderfully repurposed by Boorman, and Helgeland puts another spin on the story.

Helgeland’s film opens with Porter hitting an archetypal unnamed American bad town (an amalgam of Chicago and Los Angeles, where it was filmed), to track down his former partner, Val Resnick, played with sadomasochistic psychopath perfection by Gregg Henry. Resnick and Porter’s ex-wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), doubled crossed Porter out of his share from a smash and grab heist they pulled on a money courier for a Triad gang. Resnick needed the full amount from the job, $130,000 to buy his way back into the good graces of a shadowy criminal organisation known as the Outfit.

Porter finds Lynn, now heroin addicted shadow of her former self. He confiscates her drugs and locks her in a room so she can go cold turkey, and he can get more information out of her. But, unknown to him, she has another hidden stash which she OD’s on. Porter braces the young Outfit contact that brings Lynn her monthly month and smack from Resnick. From here on, Porter basically climbs his way up the Outfit ladder in an effort to get his share of the money which he was cheated out of, which people constantly refer to as $130,000, setting up one of the film’s main gags as Porter has to keep correcting them with the correct amount.

Also trying to deal themselves in on Porter’s share of the money are a couple of crooked cops (Jack Conley and Bill Duke), a lowlife Outfit operative, Stegman (a wonderful supporting effort by David Paymer), and Resnick’s on again off again lover, an Asian dominatrix named Pearl (Lucy liu), who also has connections to the Triad gang that Porter and Resnick originally robbed.

As Porter puts it at one point in the film, “You go high enough, you always get to one man.” Through a combination of animal cunning and brute violence, he works his way up through layers of the Outfit and their middleman (wonderfully portrayed by James Coburn and William Devane). He is helped in this effort by Rosie (Maria Bello), a literal hooker with a heart of gold who Porter used to bodyguard on the job and had a brief fling with. Lashings of violence and a lot of double dealing later, the story culminates in a final shootout, with the potentially fatally wounded Porter being driven out of town by Rosie to places unknown and, it is inferred, a new start.

This is a blunt force object of a film, almost completely lacking in any nuance or subtlety. This is not totally a bad thing. The story has an undeniable narrative force, best symbolised by Porter and Resnick’s heist of the Triad courier, which literally involves the use of a deliberate head on collision in a narrow alley. The film looks great, with the use of inky blacks and deep blues. As I have noted above, there is also some great supporting work by the supporting cast. In addition to all of this, I liked the way Helgeland slips in a few nice homages to the original Point Blank. These include a scene with Porter walking in a similar way to Marvin did at the beginning of Boorman’s film, and a slight fetishization with the same kind of oversized gun that Marvin used. I think it is a Smith & Wesson Model 29, but I am sure the gun users among you will correct me if I am wrong.

All that said, while I don’t actively dislike Payback – Straight Up, I also don’t think it is a great film. It is certainly not the best screen adaptation of a Westlake novel.

The film is incredibly violent, including fairly graphic fights between Lynn and Porter, Resnick and Pearl, and Resnick and Portner. This all blends into a general tone of nastiness, signified at the very beginning by Porter stealing from a beggar, and quickly escalating up into a series of increasingly vicious and graphic beatings and shootings, etc, with Porter taking a lot of the punishment. It is not that the violence is a problem for me per se, as much as I felt a lot of it was unnecessarily gratuitous and pointless to the story.

Which flows into where I think Payback – Straight Up fails in the final analysis – its overall tonal confusion between grim, ultra violent neo noir and an oddball humour, that at times verges on slapstick. It is a mix of styles that I just don’t think works.

I also have some issues with Gibson’s depiction of Porter as a more fully fledged embodiment of the Martin Riggs character he played in the Lethal Weapon franchise, a mixture of amoral sociopathic hardman and comedic punching bag. Whatever Parker was in the books, and I realise that shifted over the course of Westlake’s series, he was never displayed the sort of unhinged, almost suicidally inclined nature that his character of Porter has in Payback – Straight Up.

Next up Parker, 2013


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