Payback (review)

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Marquis de Sade, Call Your Office…

I’ve figured out the secret to Mel Gibson‘s appeal, and it isn’t pretty.

Imagine Martin Riggs (Gibson’s Lethal Weapon character) gone over to the dark side, and you’ve got Porter, Payback‘s “real Cro-Magnon-looking bastard” who turns the mean streets and the dingy flophouses of a gray, anonymous city into his own personal battlezone. Porter (Mel Gibson), a low-life thief, is not a man to piss off, but that’s what his partner, sleazy Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), does when he cheats Porter out of his share of robbery takings of $140,000.
Val uses the money to buy his way back into graces of the local crime syndicate — Porter wants his share back. So he works his way up the chain of command of the organization, through oily lieutenants Carter (William Devane) and Fairfax (Affliction‘s James Coburn) to head honcho Bronson (Kris Kristofferson), politely asking for his 70 grand and committing mayhem when he doesn’t get it.

Like a lost Scorcese pastiche from the 70s, Payback has a grainy, washed-out look, its retro city, grimy and noisy, filled with rotary phones and huge, gas-guzzling American cars. Intensely violent, it’s also darkly, dryly funny. Gibson never once treats us to Riggs’s wacked-out grin — Porter is too deadly earnest for self-deprecation. Instead Porter’s lips curl into a sneer to accompany the one-liners he growls out, too blackly droll for me to give away. He has to practice smiling in a mirror, and he doesn’t do it very well — he looks like he’s grimacing with pain. The lines on Gibson’s face, etching a little deeper with each new film, here help give him the grim intensity Porter needs to make us believe that his girlfriend, Rosie (Maria Bello), would name “the nastiest damn dog that ever lived” after him.

Nobody does bruised and battered better than Gibson, and his Porter takes lots of horrible beatings in Payback. (Remember that thrashing Gibson took in Conspiracy Theory? Much worse here.) Few actors who look as good as he does are willing to look so awful in the name of art. But I bet Gibson knows that that’s a big part of his cross-gender popularity — men want to be with him, and women just want him. And all because his characters take whippings on a regular basis.

There’s a character in Payback, Pearl (Lucy Alexis Liu), a prostitute who likes to dispense physical abuse as much as she likes to receive it, and it was somewhere between a scene in which she gets turned on watching Val take a thrashing and one of the almost pornographically violent scenes in which Porter gets the stuffing kicked out of him when it struck me that the audience is almost as sadistic as Pearl. The audience likes watching Mel Gibson get beat up. The audience loves it.

And from there it was but a step to admit to myself that, well, yeah, I guess I like it, too. I wanna be the one — like Rosie in Payback — to scold him in dulcet tones that he’s crazy, to gently wipe the blood and gore away and then kiss his boo-boos all better. I bet most female fans of Gibson would want to be in Rosie’s place, too. Much as the liberated woman in me hates to admit it, there’s a lot of appeal in the whole nursing fantasy.

And how does the abuse work into male fandom? I think it makes Gibson less threatening. What self-respecting guy could imagine himself going for a beer with, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Brad Pitt? Schwarzenegger’s size makes him a physical threat, while Pitt’s looks might make any male companion of his invisible. Gibson may be good-looking, but his characters rarely seem to take themselves too seriously, and anyway, that pretty face gets pummeled daily. Chances are he’s gonna have a black eye and a broken arm on any given day. Plus, he can be beaten up — here’s a guy that you might have a decent chance of taking in a fight.

My theory is no more politically correct than the movie that inspired it, but if I can admit my little perversion, then so can you.

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