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Starring: Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, Kris Kristofferson, William Devane, Gregg Henry, David Paymer, Lucy Liu, Bill Duke, John Glover, Deborah Kara Unger, James Coburn Directed by: Brian Helgeland Written by: Brian Helgeland and Terry Hayes

"Seventy grand. That's what they took from me. That's what I intend to get back."

The man's name is Porter. "Does this Porter have a first name?" a crime boss asks one of his henchmen, to which he shrugs his shoulders. We don't know his first name, nor do we need to know. He's just a criminal looking to get back his share of heist money taken from him after the job was completed.

The money is now in the hands of a criminal organization known as "The Outfit". What exactly is The Outfit? Doesn't really matter. The inner-workings of The Outfit aren't as important as the fact that they are the ones holding the money that belongs to Porter. The story traces his attempt to retrieve his money - not his pride, not his dignity, not his principles - just the money.

"Payback" is a lean, tight action thriller. It was directed and co-written by Brian Helgeland, who co-wrote "L.A. Confidential". He knows exactly the story he wants to tell, and doesn't compound the plot with a lot of other subplots. Anything that isn't directly related to the retrieval of his money isn't dealt with here. Even when Porter (Mel Gibson) looks up an old flame (Maria Bello), it's not so much for romantic reasons, but because he knows about her connections to The Outfit.

Helgeland and his co-writer Terry Hayes have filled their story with colorful characters and sharp dialogue, leading to many humorous verbal exchanges. At one point, Porter holds a gun on Mr. Carter (William Devane), a key member of The Outfit, has him call his boss (Kris Kristofferson) so that Porter can fill him in on the situation: "If I don't get my seventy-thousand, I'm gonna have to kill Carter here." "Are you threatening me?" "No, I'm threatening Carter."

Sure, that's a throwaway gag line, but it's also interesting how dialogue like that demonstrates the misperceptions everyone has of this gutsy, headstrong, tenacious man named Porter. Seventy-thousand dollars? Surely that can't be it. There must be some other reason. How else do you explain someone crazy enough to take on The Outfit? All of these questions and perceptions are displayed through the use of some nifty dialogue which also gets laughs from the audience. Good scripts are able to do that.

But perhaps even more important to the success of the film is the performance by Mel Gibson. He has many funny lines, but he plays them all straight. He has to play them straight. The movie wouldn't work if his character realized what he was saying and doing was funny. Somehow Gibson is able to do this and remain likable at the same time. I can't think of too many actors who could pull something like this off. It's a terrific performance. The other performances are all on the money as well, especially Lucy Alexis Liu, as an S & M hellcat who gets turned on by any violent, blood-oozing, adrenaline-pumping criminal act. (Boy, is she in the right movie.)

All of these elements conspire to make an intelligent, fun, crafty, exciting film. Violent, yes. But this is a view from the inside. There are no real "heroes" here. (At least, not in the traditional sense.) It looks at a section of the criminal world from within the very same world, and doesn't apologize for it. It simply has fun with it. A lot of fun.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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