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Film / Payback

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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... and it's only $70,000. (Turns and leaves)

Payback is a 1999 crime thriller directed by Brian Helgeland and starring Mel Gibson. It is the second adaptation of Richard Stark's novel The Hunter, the first of which being Lee Marvin's Point Blank (1967). note  The cast also includes Maria Bello, Gregg Henry, Kris Kristofferson, David Paymer, William Devane, Lucy Liu, Bill Duke and Deborah Kara Unger.

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 (Gregg Henry), 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 that Porter was havign an affair, and then enlisted her help in double crossing Porter. Once the loot had been counted, Lynn shot Porter in the back, Val took all the money he needed, and they both left Porter for dead.

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

Now, with the help of Rosie (a hooker he used to drive around, protect, and date behind his wife's back years ago, played by Maria Bello), Porter comes 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 (Lucy Liu), Porter will get his $70,000.

In 2005, a director's cut of the film, entitled Payback: Straight Up was released on home video featuring the original cut of the film before 30% of it was reshot. It is much Darker and Edgier than the theatrical version, with Porter as a ruthless Villain Protagonist rather than an Anti-Hero.

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.
    • In the director's cut, Carter himself seems faintly amused by Porter's clarification, murmuring "touché."
  • Adaptational Heroism: Parker, who Porter is based on, is a much more morally ambiguous and pragmatically vicious person than the more noble crook Porter is portrayed as. In particular, his relationship with his wife Lynn is more more abusive and toxic. Whereas Porter is trying to get his wife off drugs in the movie, Parker in the novel straight up suggests to her to commit suicide through overdose which she then does. Parker then takes her corpse to a city park and slashes her face up and dumps her body into some brush to make it look like it was a serial killing. Compared to the novel, Porter in the movie is much more sympathetic to Lynn and leaves her body in the bed to be found by the cops instead, only removing the heroin needle and embedding it in the wall with is wedding ring as a way to say goodbye.
  • 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.
  • Adapted Out: Everything regarding Westlake's Parker series as a whole was removed, making this a stand-alone tale.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Parker, the star of a long running crime novel series, became Porter for this film.
    • Likewise, his traitorous partner in the novel, Mal Resnick, has his name changed to Val Resnick instead.
  • Anti-Hero: Porter is a murderer and a thief, but he's got his own sense of honor and is opposing a criminal empire.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Everyone Porter actually uses violence against is a bad person in some way, ranging from leaders of organized crime to a panhandler claiming to be a disabled veteran.
    • The slimy Stegman (who has zero regards about the consequences of his drug dealing) gets gunned down by the Tongs who were going for Porter.
  • 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: Porter gets some gruesome surgery to remove the bullets in his back from an alcoholic back alley doctor 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, the Outfit leader that we see on screen.
  • Black Comedy: The movie more or less runs off this, and it's one of the main things that keeps it from being completely bleak. Just one example: Porter confronts Val Resnick as Val is beating the crap out of Rosie. Porter shoots Val and renders Val helpless. Val offers to help Porter get the money and deal with the Outfit, including promising that he knows a way around the Outfit's security in Carter's office building. Porter seems to be entertaining the offer and casually asks Val if he has a light for the cigarette Porter pulled out. When Val says no Porter kills him, quipping "Well what good are you then," and then immediately pulls out his own lighter and lights his cigarette.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Porter is a crook, but he's slightly better than the villains of the series because at least he's avenging himself from being double-crossed and backstabbed.
  • 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.
    • Val as well. The movie makes incredibly clear that nobody outside of the aforementioned Stegman is intimidated by him or takes him seriously. (With the possible exception of some random restaurant patron that Val briefly menaces due to being upset at the news that Porter is alive.) Even when he has Rosie at his mercy, she goes out of her way to note how he’s a coward who needs to beat prostitutes to feel tough. His own boss Carter considers whether or not to just have him whacked with the same amount of thought of what to order for lunch, noting he wouldn’t survive two seconds on his own without the Outfit looking out for him.
  • Catchphrase: 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.
  • Children Are Innocent: Porter refuses to perform violence in front of kids.
  • Chinese Launderer: The Triad is using a big, industrial laundry located in the Chinatown as a front for their money laundry - the heist Porter and Val performed together was about stealing the cash shipment.
  • 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.
  • Comically Small Demand: Porter is out to topple a massive criminal empire unless he gets... $70,000, which was to be his share of the money from the heist he pulled with Val Resnick. Various crooks and mobsters keep assuming that he at least wants the full $130,000 that Resnick gave them, but Porter insists that he just wants his $70,000. An exasperated Fairfax exclaims "My suits are worth more than that!". In the director's cut, the leader of the Outfit state that she wouldn't even get out of bed in the morning for an amount that small.
  • 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.
  • Consummate Professional: Porter is a career criminal, with a knack for details and planning ahead, always keeping his head cool. After being stifled of his paycheck and left with a few bullets in his back, he comes back and employs all of his professionalism to get the money back and take down everyone that stands in his way.
  • 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. He bounces back from being shot repeatedly in the back in less than a year, raises tremendous amounts of hell, and withstands being tortured for a long enough time to make his faked "breaking" believable out of sheer meanness. And the fact he's this determined to get $70,000 is what baffles everybody.
  • 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. He's a smug little weasel who acts powerful when he has someone else there to protect him, but he bends when someone overpowers him.
  • Disappointed by the Motive: A Running Gag has the mobsters become irate when they find out that their criminal empire is being leveled because of Porter's Comically Small Demand of $70,000.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening of the movie has Porter start with nothing to his name and grift himself into a steak dinner, a fine suit, and a pistol, establishing him as resourceful and immoral. In particular, the fact that he stiffs the waitress of a tip by taking his two cents change shows just how mercilessly exacting Porter is to detail, foreshadowing his Comically Small Demand of $70,000.
  • 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 would rather be swimming with dolphins than getting into any kind of bloody business. During Porter's torture, he gripes that he hates this whole thing and begs Porter to be reasonable.
    • Porter says that he won't kill Stegman in front of a bunch of schoolkids. He generally doesn't kill people unless he has to.
  • Evil Versus Evil: Hell, the film's tagline was "Get ready to root for the bad guy".
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Outfit in general presents themselves as a well-run and bureaucratic organization that just happens to function outside of the law. When pushed, it becomes clear that violence and brutality are basic to their strategies, they just don't like to dwell on it.
    Carter: The Syndicate is not unreasonable, Mr. Porter, but no corporation in the world would do what you're asking.
  • 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. It's worth noting that one of his first actions in the film is to rob a panhandler who's lying about being a disabled veteran.
  • Gangsta Style: Porter enters and points his gun this way at Fairfax.
  • 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.
  • Hate Sink: There is absolutely nothing about Val Resnick to like or respect. He’s a petty, racist, sexist pig who is competent at absolutely nothing. Even his own employers see him as nothing more than a sadist they can maybe use from time to time but ultimately turns out to not be worth the time and money in investing after he makes Porter a problem for them.
  • High-Class Call Girl:
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Rosie. Pearl... not so much.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Porter kills Resnick by putting a pillow on his head and shooting his revolver through it, emitting a silenced shot. A pillow certianly wouldn't be enough to make a revolver less noisy, and certainly not this near-silent.
  • Humble Goal: Everyone is surprised that Porter is after a Comically Small Demand of the $70,000 that he was originally owed. This is even more of a humble goal than it was in the original novel, where the money he was owed ($45,000 when the novel came out in 1962) would have been worth about $250,000 in 1999 dollars (when this film came out), which is still quite small for a huge crime syndicate.
  • I Have Your Wife: Porter kidnaps Bronson's son.
  • Improvised Weapon: Porter uses a roll of quarters in his fist to lend his argument some weight.
  • Indy Ploy: Between the Outfit, Val, the Triads, the dirty cops, and Stegman, 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.
  • It's the Principle of the Thing:
    • Asked once of Porter regarding why he's so driven to get back just seventy thousand dollars. Porter snarks back that "stop, you're getting me all misty" before reminding the man who asked him to remind the Outfit that it's just seventy thousand dollars, not a hundred and forty, and leaving.
    • For the Outfit, it is the principle of the thing — $70,000 is a joke to them, one of the bosses claiming the suits that Porter shot up were worth more. But they can't give money to everyone who demands it, and once Porter starts using force, they can't give in for fear of being seen as weak.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: A few of Porter's toes get a very bad meeting with a hammer. Subverted in that it doesn't breaks Porter and he leads the bad guys into a trap through providing misinformation, but the torture he had to endure in order to sell his "breaking" was still brutal — in the director's cut, it's even implied the injuries may be fatal.
  • 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. In the theatrical cut one of the Outfit's goons gives her a pretty hard punch to the head, but she's the only member of the Triad who seems to survive.
  • 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 Outfit 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. He's obviously been raised in privilege, without any underworld business ever touching him.
  • The Mob Boss Is Scarier: Porter has a difficult time intimidating members of the Outfit, who initially refuse to give him information because the bosses will kill them. Porter always has to remind them, "What do you think I'm going to do to you? Worry about me." As in Porter is threatening to kill them right now — they are screwed any way.
  • 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.
  • No Full Name Given: Porter, Rosie, Pearl, Hicks and Leary, Bronson, Carter and Fairfax. Lampshaded when Carter asks Resnick for Porter's first name and Resnick has to think for a second before admitting he has no idea.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: All of Porter's problems began because his partner-in-crime Resnick decided to shoot him In the Back and leave him for dead to get the $130,000 he needed to buy his way into the Outfit right now, rather than doing anything else like planning another heist.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Outfit is made of these, an unholy mix of a traditional mob and a modern corporation with committees, expense reports, and a pseudo-decentralized management model. Carter tries to use this to brush off giving Porter his money immediately by pointing out how long and complicated it would take for the Outfit’s management to approve granting Porter his money. Porter calls his bluff and notes any organization like this is ultimately going to have someone at the very, very top who could unilaterally approve the request. Carter concedes that, yeah, they could just ask Bronson directly.
  • Percussive Pickpocket: Porter bumps into a passerby and takes his wallet, using the money to make some purchases before the cards get canceled, then runs out on the last check.
  • 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.
  • Pillow Silencer: Porter executes his Token Motivational Nemesis Val Resnick in this manner. A small couch pillow apparently makes a perfect silencer for Porter's enormous revolver.
  • 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.
  • Predatory Prostitute: Val Resnick is seen hiring Pearl, a dominatrix whose methods veer into outright violence (including beating Resnick and being beaten by him in return). She gets visibly turned on when Porter holds the two of them at gunpoint, and participates in her gang's shootout with him towards the end.
  • 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 Outfit.
  • Re-Cut: The Director's Cut Payback: Straight Up is the original version that was deemed too dark for general audiences. It has no narration, a different version of Bronson who is both female and The Ghost, and a Downer Ending.
  • Running Gag: No one ever seems to get that Porter doesn't want the whole $130,000 that Resnick gave to the Outfit, just the $70k that was his share. He keeps reminding them... sometimes violently.
  • Running Gagged: Fairfax hands Porter the money as ransom for his son… all $130,000… as the "carrot" part of the upcoming Cold-Blooded Torture he is going to inflict to Porter to get his whereabouts. By this point, all Porter can do is roll his eyes in annoyance.
  • A Simple Plan: How complicated could it be for Porter to track down a weasel like Val and force him to give the money back? Very complicated, as it turns out, because Val gave the money to a powerful crime organization to pay off debts he owed them. Anyone else would have given it up as a lost cause at that point, but not Porter.
  • Smug Snake: Val sees himself as a dangerous man with powerful connections in the Outfit. In reality, he’s little more than a lower level thug who can only fight unconscious people or prostitutes half his body size. Even he attempts to use the Outfit to get rid of Porter, they just cut him off from their resources and just wait for Porter to come by their office after he kills Val.
  • 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: 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.
  • 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.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Invoked by Porter as an excuse to finish off Val, not that Val was doing much for the plot anyways. His employers were quick to turn their backs on him too.