March 1999
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

The Sneak Preview from a Balcony Seat

Not twenty feet away from me, a sleek black RV screeched to a halt. A bunch of hard-boiled Triad hitmen shoved automatic weapons out the windows in the direction of the cab next to them. The sound of the big guns blasting away echoed like thunder along the brick and concrete walls of the alley, and rich red blood spat out of the body of the cab's passenger like a fountain. I folded over the comics page of the Tribune and started work on the crossword puzzle.

I was working at a job well past the point that you could call it "dead end". The company didn't have any clients, there weren't any likely prospects, they were 6 months behind in their rent, and nobody was paying me. But I still hung around the office every day - I could use the computers for my own projects, and to look for another job. And there were the little fringe benefits of working downtown.

Mel Gibson's latest feature is called Payback. It's taken a good year and a half after production wrapped for this remake of Point Blank to make it to the screen, mostly because the studio heads were pissing in their pants worrying about how to market it. Mel plays a thief and killer named Porter whose character has a lot of what might be called un-redeeming characteristics. When the original adaptation of Richard Stark's (aka Donald Weslake) The Hunter was made with Lee Marvin back in 1967, anti-heroes were all the rage and it was okay for the protagonist to have a little tarnish - or even be a complete dirty bastard. I happen to think it would be fun to see Gibson play an outright villain for a change, but Hollywood marketing folks are a nervous crew and are afraid that if you can't root for the good guy unquestioningly that it might shave a few points off their box office tally.

Their response to the situation has been to (rumor has it) monkey with the editing enough that Porter comes off in a slightly better light. I don't know, maybe he kicks somebody when they're down only once instead of three or four times - sometimes things like that make a difference. They've also sent it out with the tag line "Get ready to root for the bad guy", as if to say "heh heh, [sweating and fidgeting] ya see? He's a bad guy, but he's still the hero, right? So go see it anyway, please (*gulp*)?"

They shouldn't worry so much. Brian Helgeland's remake may not be as hard-edged and gritty as John Boorman's version, but it's a respectable and entertaining little modern noir with a few nice action set-ups. Porter is betrayed and shot by his partner (Gregg Henry, trying to look like an uglier James Caan) and wife (Deborah Kara Unger) after a robbery, but is just too stubborn to die, and comes back to get his share of the money. Any revenge that comes his way is incidental, but he mainly just wants the money. In order to get it he has to work his way up the syndicate food chain a ways, killing when he has to and getting beat up a lot. It's old fashioned pulp fiction, not incredibly realistic but capturing enough attitude and atmosphere to be good for a thrill.

Porter is no hero, but he becomes the protagonist due to the fact that his opponents are so much worse. He only wants to get back the money he believes is rightfully his (despite the fact he stole it in the first place), but the mobsters he's up against - including William Devane, John Glover, Kris Kristofferson, and James Coburn - are just too arrogant to give it back to him. He's doing good through his self-interest, and his stubborn will becomes endearing despite the savage nature of his activities. In other words, he's a sadistic devil towards other bad guys, but he's fond of dogs and children.

Although Payback takes place in a purposely unnamed metropolis, anyone who's lived here will recognize the Chicago locations. A lot of scenes - be they shootouts, interrogations or mere confrontations - take place in downtown alleys. What you won't realize is that most of these scenes take place in a single carefully redressed alley, which happens to run along the building in which I had my office, wasting my time in the aforementioned situation-without-a-cause. This gave me the rare opportunity, while busying myself with various forgotten endeavors, to peer down from my second floor windows just above where the large film crew was running about with headphones and clipboards preparing the next alley shot.

I noted with great curiosity that the guns wouldn't always flash when fired, and in some shots the actors would just shake them, pretending to fire. Separate shots would be taken of weapons firing "live" to be cut in where necessary. I was amused to see the dog belonging to Rosie the hooker (Maria Bello) being made up with a bandaged head wound, only to be disappointed that I didn't get to see it in the movie - the wound was changed to the dog's stomach. Why the change? Did the dog refuse to act with the head bandage? Was the effect too comical and spoil the mood?

Did seeing so many scenes shot ahead of time spoil the movie for me? I wouldn't say so. It was distracting a few times, making me think, "Oh, so that's why Mel's stuntman got thrown into those boxes", but not enough to spoil the show. Forget about being "taken out of the picture" - I was too busy wondering how Porter was getting around after taking enough physical punishment to put any of us in the hospital. Besides being shot in the back a few times, he gets a couple toes smashed with a hammer, and punched and kicked more times than I could count, and still makes sure he gets the cash and the girl in the end. Okay. Tough guy. I get the point.

Watching scenes from a movie being shot doesn't change your perspective that much really. Trailers and TV ads for Payback contain a lot of deleted or alternate shots that aren't in the movie (as do very many trailers), but I doubt that alters how the audience sees the movie. Viewing a film will always be a completely objective experience, and there's no telling what factors will affect how each screening is received by each audience member. However, I can't help thinking I might have taken Payback differently if it hadn't reminded me that I'd spent so much of 1997 in limbo, watching the world go by outside my window.


By the time this sees print all the tributes will have been over, but at this writing I've just heard of the death of Gene Siskel. I learned many things from Gene - not to sit in front of him during screenings where his long legs would kick your seat; not to wake him during a movie - but most of all I learned that readers like to get an informed opinion, to know the thought behind a simple "thumbs up or down", and to show how far one person's opinions could take him. I rarely agreed with Gene's reviews, and if we did like or dislike the same movie it was generally for different reasons, but the intelligence and respect shown in his writing was always appreciated. He will be greatly missed, and my sympathy goes out to his friends and family.


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