Film / Payback

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Get ready to root for the bad guy.

Fairfax: You just signed your own death warrant for a hundred and thirty thousand dollars. I don't get that. What is it? Uh, the principle or something, huh?
Porter: No, I just want my money back. (Turns and leaves)

Payback is a 1999 thriller directed by Brian Helgeland and starring Mel Gibson. It is the second adaptation of Richard Stark's The Hunter, the first of which being Lee Marvin's Point Blank.

Six months ago, Porter (Gibson), a successful but low-profile thief who specialized in payroll jobs, was content. He had a nice home, a loving wife named Lynn, and was financially stable. That all changed when he partnered up with Val Resnick, a former partner trapped in debt, to steal $140,000 from the Triads. When the job went perfectly, everything seemed alright...except Val's debt was $130,000, and he never intended on sharing the spoils.

Before the job went down, Val had convinced Lynn (who was tricked into believing Porter was having an affair) to help pull a double cross. Once the loot had been counted, Lynn shot Porter several times, Val took the money, and they both left Porter for dead.

Unfortunately for them, that wasn't the end. Instead of quietly dying after getting shot three times in the back, Porter dragged himself off to a back alley doctor, took some time to recover from his wounds and traveled straight back to the city, itching for some serious payback.

Now, with the help of Rosie (a hooker he used to drive years ago), Porter's back to claim his share of the job. It doesn't matter if he has to work his way through drug dealers, Triads, bent cops, The Syndicate, and a mob-connected dominatrix who looks an awful lot like Lucy Liu (oh, and Stegman, too), Porter will get his $70,000.

In 2005, a director's cut of the film, entitled "Payback: Straight Up", was released on home video. This cut is notable for several reasons. For starters, it has a much warmer color palette, an entirely different musical score, and is noticeably shorter than the theatrical cut. However, the most striking difference between the two is the characterization of Porter himself. In the theatrical cut, Porter is a sarcastic thief with a Hidden Heart of Gold who frequently gives wry voice over narration. In the Straight Up cut, Porter is a ruthless Villain Protagonist who never cracks a joke and almost exclusively looks out for himself, with Rosie being the only possible exception.


This film contains examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Bronson can't help but chuckle at the following exchange with Porter:
    Porter: Well, either I get my money, or I'll kill Carter.
    Bronson: Are you threatening me?
    Porter: I'm not threatening you. I'm threatening Carter.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Rosie is a fairly minor character in the source material, just an old acquaintance of Porter/Parker. Here, she's Promoted to Love Interest. Also, the subplots involving the dirty cops and the Tongs are created wholesale for the film.
  • Anti-Villain (Type I): Porter is no white knight, he's a murderer and a thief out to steal back something he stole in the first place. He kills, mutilates, and brutalizes without mercy as a method to expedite his robbery. He just looks less tarnished than his sadistic, back-stabbing, racist, woman-beating ex-partner. The Director's Cut loses even this distinction, and Porter is just a straight-up villain, albeit the focus of the story.
  • Author Appeal: Gibson's changes to the original film include adding a scene in which his character is tortured. Torture scenes seem to be rather common in films that Gibson helms.
  • Back-Alley Doctor: An alcoholic one who drinks from the same liquor he sterilizes his tools in.
  • Batman Gambit: The climax of the film, in which Porter fools Bronson and his men into going to the booby-trapped apartment.
  • Big Bad: Bronson.
  • Black and Gray Morality: Big time.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Porter does this at the end of the Director's Cut. It's left ambiguous as to whether he survives.
  • Bulletproof Human Shield: Porter briefly uses Stegman as this, although instead of just standing there and letting his shield soak up bullets, Porter is immediately moving out of the way.
  • Butt-Monkey: Stegman. Seriously, no one has any respect for the guy.
  • Catch-Phrase: Several people say that The Outfit will kill them if they give Porter any information. Porter's response is always the same: "What do you think I'm gonna do to you? Worry about me."
  • Chekhov's Gun: The booby-trapped phone.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Rosie asks whether Porter can stand up to being tortured, because if the Outfit catches him they will be sure to ask him some question in a less than friendly way. He can, in a way. He resists it just long enough that Bronson and company will believe he's breaking, then gives them directions that leads them into a lethal trap.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Porter loves this trope. Ripping out piercings and hiding weapons are his specialties.
  • Combat Sadomasochist: Pearl smiles and licks the blood when she gets hit in the face, and begins visibly panting in excitement when a handgun is pointed at her. That's also a big part of her value to Val, since he likes beating on women.
  • Compressed Vice: If Lynn was an addict before shooting Porter, the brief scenes and flashbacks don't show it, making her a Functional Addict at worst. She's since gone all the way to barely being able to walk because of all the drugs in her system.
  • Death by Adaptation: In the books, Bronson doesn't die until two books after this story, and Fairfax survives and even helps Parker (Porter's literary equivalent) arrange a ceasefire with the Outfit in exchange for killing Bronson, who both Fairfax and his superior, Karns, want dead to take over the power vacuum. In the movie, both Bronson and Fairfax are blown up.
  • Determinator: Porter.
  • Dirty Cop: Two of them, refusing to believe that the stakes of Porter's job are as low as he claims, try to horn in on the operation and claim a cut of the money. Porter swipes the badge of one and gets the other to put his fingerprints on a gun, then planted both on the body of a man killed with that gun. They get taken away by Internal Affairs.
  • Dirty Coward: Arthur Stegman.
  • Disappointed by the Motive: A Gray and Black Morality (or Black And Black Morality, in the Director's Cut) version of this trope is the crux of the Running Gag: there is absolutely nobody willing to believe that Porter is willing and able to take on the entire criminal underworld of the city for an amount as low as $70,000 (they assume that at least it is for the $140,000 that the heist Val Resnick backstabbed Porter on gave out. Porter keeps on correcting them that it's just the $70,000 (to the point that when he's finally given the money, the fact it's $140,000 makes him do an exasperated eye roll)).
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening of the movie is Porter being a dick. Jumping turnstiles, robbing a begging "crippled Vietnam veteran", stealing wallets, skipping out on lunch checks, not tipping...
    • However, it also establishes him as a pragmatic dick, as he eventually turns the $3 taken from a homeless man into a steak dinner, a fine suit, and a pistol.
    • And after stealing cigarettes from a waitress, he still stops on his way out of the diner to get the two cents' change of his payment (when it may have been more practical to leave them, it's just that inconsequential an amount). This (and his narration at the beginning) shows him as a man who, when he says he's owed $70,000, yes, he means it's exactly $70,000, and he's willing to do for those $70,000 what other people would do for at least a million (which is why none of the other crooks believe him).
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Bronson and his spoiled son Johnny. Naturally, that gives Porter a way to really get under Bronson's skin.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Fairfax hates torture and begs Porter to be reasonable and skip the whole interrogation routine. Also, Porter says that he won't kill Stegman in front of a bunch of schoolkids.
  • Evil vs. Evil: Hell, the film's tagline was "Get ready to root for the bad guy".
  • Film Noir: Both versions are this, but in different flavors. The theatrical cut has more violence, a tamer protagonist, a first-person narration courtesy of Porter, and has a metallic blue color filter that adds to the noir esque elements. The director's cut, on the other hand, has a more villainous Porter, a bleaker ending, and removes the blue filter, which makes the story more like a Neo-Noir film.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Porter uses this repeatedly against his opponents. When scouting the Triads, he notes that they aren't wearing seat belts, and gets them into a bone-jarring car crash. He ditches his gun before going in to meet Carter, so that Carter's security will relax and pay no attention to the roll of quarters in his pocket. He witnesses Bronson spoiling his kid Johnny and kidnaps Johnny to use that as leverage against Bronson. Etc.
  • Frameup: Porter frames the Corrupt Cops for the murder of his double-crossing partner to get them off his back.
  • From Camouflage to Criminal: While absolutely no attention is called to it, Porter has a USMC tattoo that is seen when he is taking a shower, and proves himself to be a quite successful and tremendously ruthless criminal.
  • Going Cold Turkey: When Porter finds his wife again, he plans to have her do this. Unfortunately, she has more drugs hidden in the house and an overdose ensues.
  • Guns Akimbo: Porter vs. the Triad minivan. With a revolver in one of his hands.
  • Has a Type: Looking at Rosie and Porter's wife, it's pretty clear that Porter prefers slim blondes with some moxie to them.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Rosie, especially since she works for The Syndicate now.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Rosie. Pearl... not so much.
  • Humble Goal: Everyone is surprised that Porter is only after $70,000. Most assume that he would at least want Val Resnick's share too. Others, like the dirty cops, say that no one would go through this for such a low amount of money. Humorously, it's even less in the original novel the movie's based on, only being about $40,000.
    • However, that novel was written in 1962, so the $45,000 at stake there would be worth just a touch under $250,000 in 1999 due to inflation. It was still a trivial amount to a nationwide criminal syndicate, but enough that they weren't in disbelief that he wanted to get it back like in the film.
  • I Have Your Wife: Porter kidnaps Bronson's son.
  • Improvised Weapon: Porter uses a roll of quarters to lend his argument some weight.
  • Indy Ploy: Between the Outfit, the Triads, the dirty cops, and Arthur, Porter's tapdancing on quicksand to keep out of trouble. In the end, he uses them all against each other.
  • Insistent Terminology: Porter is frequently corrected that the Syndicate is now called the Outfit. Just as frequently, he has to correct them that he only wants $70,000.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: With a hammer.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Porter is a ruthless all-around cad, but in the theatrical version, he does genuinely love Rosie and the closing narration makes it clear that he's considering a new line of work. The director's cut is something of an aversion, and has some extra Kick the Dog moments not in the theatrical, including Porter beating the hell out of his wife.
  • Karma Houdini: Pearl.
  • Kick the Dog: Val literally shoots Rosie's dog, smacks her around, and talks about raping and beating her. If that's not enough for him to cross the Moral Event Horizon, we also can assume from some dialog that he has beaten Rosie and maybe other Syndicate call girls in the past, he keeps Lynn supplied with/hooked on drugs, and is casually racist.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: Val repeatedly beats on a semi-conscious Triad member when he and Porter steal their cash.
  • Mafia Princess: Bronson's son is a rare male example.
  • The Mob Boss Is Scarier: Notably averted. Whenever someone says that they can't give Porter information because the Outfit will kill them, Porter always has the same response: "What do you think I'm going to do to you? Worry about me." note 
  • Mob-Boss Suit Fitting: Carter, one of the Co-Dragons for the Big Bad who is presented as running the city where the story takes place, is seen putting on a suit as he gives orders about how he wants Villain Protagonist Porter taken care of.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Not only did the trailer contain scenes that were cut in the theatrical version, but it also tried to inject a comedic tone and paint Porter as a Classical Anti-Hero/No Respect Guy. Yeah... no. Even the more accurate trailer tried to depict the movie as a comedy with a slightly darker sense of humor than normal instead of as a film noir type of movie.
  • Only One Name: Lampshaded when Carter asks Resnick for Porter's first name and Resnick has to think for a second before admitting he has no idea.
  • Percussive Pickpocket: Porter does this at the beginning, among other unscrupulous things.
  • Phony Veteran: The beggar Porter steals from lied about being crippled, so he may well have been lying about being a vet too. Since Porter has a USMC tattoo, he probably doesn't take too kindly to the whole arrangement.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Val throws out some casual anti-Chinese comments just to add more flavor to his character. "You know what the problem is with kicking a Chow's ass? An hour later you want to do it again!"
  • Poor Communication Kills: Carter's thugs discover where Porter is staying and unsuccessfully attempt to assassinate him. Had they kicked that info upstairs to Bronson, this movie would have ended very differently.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Fairfax doesn't seem like a bad guy at all. He's just come back from vacation swimming with dolphins and comes across like a hippy. He speaks out against the torture at the end as well. Still, he's in the top management of the Syndicate.
  • Re-Cut: The Director's Cut removes the narration, cuts certain scenes, and completely changes the ending of the film.
  • Running Gag: No one ever seems to get that Porter doesn't want the whole $140,000, just the $70k that was his share. He keeps reminding them... sometimes violently.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: To a degree. Porter's not greedy, he just wants what he should have gotten in the first place.
  • A Simple Plan: How complicated could it be for Porter to track down Val and force him to give the money back? A lot more complicated than you would think, apparently.
  • The Stoic: Porter, of course. There are a couple of other cases too, most notably Carter, who barely emotes even when Porter shoots him.
  • The Syndicate: It's the Outfit, baby, we don't say Syndicate anymore.
  • Token Motivational Nemesis: Porter shows pretty early on in the movie that he can get to Val whenever he wants to. And he kills Val off somewhere about halfway through the film so that Porter can get on with the real business at hand: trying to get his money back from The Outfit.
  • Vapor Trail: Porter dispatches Carter's men this way.
  • Villain Has a Point: Although who the villain may be here is debatable, the Outfit is fairly justified in refusing to refund Porter's money. The Outfit didn't steal the money from Porter or ask Val to do it for them, and Porter only had the money in the first place since he stole it from somebody else. One of the Outfit's managers points out quite reasonably that Porter is asking them to cover Val's personal obligations for no good reason.
  • Villain Protagonist: The main character is definitely a bad guy. In fact, there is no hero in the movie, only shades of villain. The Director's Cut makes this even clearer.
  • We Named the Monkey "Jack": Rosie's dog is named Porter.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: So what does the future hold for Pearl? Is anyone going to find Bronson's son and do something about him being handcuffed to a radiator? Who cares? Porter got his money.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Porter mixes between planning things ahead and winging it when needed. And when a complication comes up, he finds new ways to deal with it. Best shown when the Outfit's goons grab him after he reveals that he's kidnapped Bronson's son, negating Porter's plan. He comes up with a new one in the middle of being tortured and leads them into a trap.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Porter's first act on returning to the city is to find his ex-wife, tell her she's going to get off drugs when he sees how messed up she is, and lie beside her in their bed while he has flashbacks that include them during better days. When he wakes up, he finds that she's died of an overdose while he was asleep.

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