Payback is a 1999 American neo-noir crime film written and directed by Brian Helgeland in his directorial debut, and starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello and David Paymer. It was based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake using the pseudonym Richard Stark, which had earlier been adapted into the 1967 film noir classic Point Blank, directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin. In 2006 Helgeland issued a director's cut that differs substantially from the version released by the studio.


In a filthy kitchen of an underground abortionist, an unkempt former medical doctor puts on surgical gloves and quickly downs a full glass of cheap whiskey. Face down on the kitchen table is a barely conscious Porter (Mel Gibson), severely wounded with two large bullet wounds in his back. The doctor pours whiskey on Porter's back to sterilize the area and digs out the bullets. Porter spends five months recuperating. Porter narrates that he had $70,000 taken from him and that is what he was going to get back.

Porter begins tracking down gangster Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), his violent former partner, and Lynn (Deborah Unger), his estranged wife and a heroin addict, both of whom betrayed Porter following a $140,000 heist from the local Chinese triads. After Lynn shot Porter and the two left him for dead, Val rejoined the Outfit, a powerful criminal organization, using $130,000 of the heist money to repay an outstanding debt. Porter is intent on reclaiming his $70,000 cut.

Porter first tracks down and confronts his wife Lynn, who has at this point become a prostitute out of shame of shooting him. After seeing how low she has sunk into drugs and prostitution, Porter takes pity on Lynn and confines her to her bedroom, only to discover the next day that she has died from a heroin overdose. (Whether Lynn's overdose was a suicide or an accident is never made clear).

Porter enlists the help of a call girl, named Rosie (Maria Bello), who is affiliated with the Outfit. Porter once served as her limo driver, during which time they had a one-night stand. Lynn's jealousy and the fact that Porter had cheated on her with Rosie led to her and Resnick double-crossing Porter. To get to Resnick, Porter must deal with a lowlife drug dealer and gambler named Arthur Stegman (David Paymer), crime bosses from the Outfit, the Chinese triads, and two corrupt police detectives named Hicks and Leary (Bill Duke and Jack Conley).

The sadistic Resnick is seeing a dominatrix named Pearl (Lucy Liu), who has connections of the Chinese triads, when Porter violently re-enters his life. Resnick goes to the Outfit to explain why Porter is demanding $70,000. Told to handle it himself, Resnick tries to, but is shot and executed by Porter in Rosie's apartment as Porter catches him abusing Rosie when Porter returns to collect his forgotten cigarettes.

Porter then kills three of the Outfit's hit squad henchmen, including their leader, Philip (John Glover), who have been sent by Carter (William Devane), their immediate superior with the Outfit, to "Stitch this mutt up."

That evening, Porter confronts Carter in his office and threatens to kill him if he refuses to pay his $70,000, his share of the heist money which Resnick used to pay the Outfit's debt. Carter explains to Porter that he is only an underboss and is not authorized to make any financial decisions. Porter then makes Carter phone the top mob boss in the organization to take the issue with the top man. (Note: each villain says that Porter wants $130,000 from Resnick's paid debt, but Porter keeps correcting them and saying "It's only $70,000!"). Porter hears the top mob boss Bronson (Kris Kristofferson) refuse over the phone, so he carries out his threat and kills Carter.

With the aid of Rosie, he kidnaps Bronson's son Johnny, keeping him tied up. He arranges for Hicks and Leary to be busted by their own colleagues in Internal Affairs by planting Leary's fingerprints on the gun Porter used to kill Resnick. He pick-pockets Hicks's badge, then leaves it with the gun in the hand of Resnick's dead body.

The next day, Bronson and his mob associate Fairfax (James Coburn) join the hunt to take him down. Porter is captured by the Outfit's men after a wild chain of events and a shootout involving Stegman, as well as Pearl and triads, which ends with Stegman and all of Pearl's henchmen being killed (only Pearl survives). Porter is taken to a warehouse where he is beaten and tortured for several hours by the Outfit's goons, leading to having two of his toes smashed with a hammer to force him to give up the location of Bronson's son.

Porter is locked inside a car trunk and taken by Bronson and his men to an apartment that had previously been rigged by the Outfit's man, Philip, to a phone connected to plastic explosive. After his captors meet an explosive demise, Porter is picked up by Rosie (with her dog, also named Porter). When she sees his injuries and asks what happened, Porter replies, "I got hammered." Taking the $130,000 the mob owed him, they drive off to Canada to begin a new life.



The film was shot during September/November 1997, in Chicago and Los Angeles, though neither city is referred to in the film. Although credited as director, Brian Helgeland's cut of the film was not the theatrical version released to audiences. After the end of principal photography, Helgeland's version was deemed too dark for the mainstream public. Following a script rewrite by Terry Hayes, director Helgeland was replaced by the production designer John Myhre,[3] who reshot 30% of the film.[4] The intent was to make the Porter character accessible. The film's tagline became: "Get Ready to Root for the Bad Guy." A potentially controversial scene which arguably involves spousal abuse was excised and more plot elements were added to the third act. After 10 days of reshoots, a new opening scene and voiceover track also were added, and Kris Kristofferson walked on as a new villain.[5]

Helgeland's version, Straight Up: The Director's Cut, was released on DVD, Blu-ray and HD DVD on April 10, 2007, after an October 2006 run at the Austin Film Festival. The Director's Cut version features a female Bronson, voiced by Sally Kellerman, does not include the voice-over by Porter and several Bronson-related scenes, and has an entirely different, ambiguous ending. A June 4, 2012 look at "movies improved by directors' cuts" by The A.V. Club described Payback: Straight Up as "a marked improvement on the unrulier original."[6]


Mel Gibson stated in a short interview released as a DVD extra that it "would've been ideal to shoot in black and white." He noted that "people want a color image" and that the actual film used a bleach bypass process to tint the film. In addition to this, the production design used muted shades of red, brown and grey for costumes, sets and the cars for further effect.[7]


Box Office

Payback was well received at the box office. The film made $21,221,526 in its opening weekend in North America. It eventually grossed $81,526,121 in North America and $80,100,000 in other territories, totaling $161,626,121 worldwide.[2]

Critical Reception

The film garnered mixed reviews among critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 54% of 74 sampled critics gave Payback positive reviews and that it got a rating average of 5.8 out of 10. The critical consensus states "Sadistic violence and rote humor saddle a predictable action premise."[8] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B-" on an A+ to F scale.[9] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B-" on an A+ to F scale.[9]

Roger Ebert gave the film a three-star rating (out of four) in his review, writing, "There is much cleverness and ingenuity in 'Payback,' but Mel Gibson is the key. The movie wouldn't work with an actor who was heavy on his feet, or was too sincere about the material."[10]



  • This is the first film to start using the standard theatrical Warner Bros. Pictures logo.


  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Payback (1999)".. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on March 5, 2011.
  3. "Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut". High-Def Digest (April 6, 2007). Retrieved on September 3, 2015.
  4. Faraci, Devin (April 6, 2007). Exclusive Interview: Brian Helgeland (Payback Director's Cut DVD). Retrieved on March 5, 2011.
  5. Abel, Glenn (April 16, 2007). Mel Gibson's lost kick-ass film. Retrieved on March 5, 2011.
  6. "The kindest cut: 14-plus movies improved by directors’ cuts". The A.V. Club (June 4, 2012). Retrieved on September 3, 2015.
  7. Script error
  8. "Payback (1999)".. Flixster. Retrieved on December 19, 2013.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "CinemaScore"..
  10. Ebert, Roger (February 5, 1999). "Payback Movie Review & Film Summary (1999)".. Retrieved on September 3, 2015.

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