Payback is a hard-boiled cartoon, a down-and-dirty comedic romp through the pulp universe, where tough-talking, disreputable characters commit double-crosses and high violence against each other, a world where the most virtuous character happens to be a prostitute. But mostly, Payback is a cartoon. That relieves the filmmakers of certain responsibilities, such as creating anything approaching a human character or putting together a plot that's driven by anything approaching rational motivation. The intent of a cartoon, especially one in the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner sadistic violence tradition, is to place the audience at a comic remove from the story, or else the anvils falling on heads will really start to hurt. Payback achieves its remove with a cartoonishly artificial coloring, a cool-blue tinting washed over the entire film (which is all first-time director Brian Helgeland brings to the table for visual style), along with characters behaving as broadly as possible and a storyline that is chopped up into a series of destructively comic set-pieces. And at the center of the absurdity is the fiendishly clever anti-hero who knows exactly what he wants, and is determined to do anything, no matter how ridiculous, irrational or violent, to get it.
All he wants is seventy thousand dollars. He doesn't want 140,000. He doesn't want 130,000. He wants seventy-his seventy. Not a dollar more, not one less. He was betrayed by his wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and his partner in crime Val (Gregg Henry), shot and left for dead as they ran off with his half of a big score. He's Porter, and he's back now, madly determined. Even though he could easily make that much money in a single robbery job himself, he only wants the money from the people who took it from him. That means penetrating and taking down the organization to whom Val now belongs, a nebulous mob group known only as 'the Syndicate,' or 'the Outfit,' depending upon who's talking about them.
This is the setting of Payback, and though it's riddled with problems, it does manage to pull off a near approximation of the giddy, destructive fun of a Warner Bros. cartoon. Its source material is the Richard Stark novel The Hunter, also used for the quintessentially '60s, mind-bending psychodrama Point Blank. Payback, in keeping with the '90s, is only interested in the story for a cheaply ironic genre caricature. With laughably clichd voice-over ('Some habits are hard to break, and if you don't kick 'em, they'll kick you back'), winking musical counterpoint from Dean Martin, and a whole lot of attitude, the film is really about nothing more than good old-fashioned swagger. Which is why a great deal of the credit for Payback working at all must go to Mel Gibson, who embodies this attitude splendidly, playing the grumpily laconic, slightly (or maybe not-so-slightly) bent loner with an agreeably lived-in ease. It's another variation on the role he's played over and over, but with his combination of the deadpan face and the vibrant insanity burbling just beneath its surface, it's one he's perfectly suited to play. Payback is a demonstration of how crucial it is to place the right actor with the right charisma in the right role, and how much weakness that can absorb. Porter is a sociopath, for sure (he'll shoot someone dead at the slightest provocation), but he's a consistent sociopath (he'll only hurt people who have hurt him first), with an unmistakable directness of purpose based somewhat on principle. But most importantly, as played by Gibson, Porter is utterly comfortable inside his own skin, and in the absence of anything traditionally likeable to latch onto, that can go a long way towards engaging an audience.
And that's good, because Payback needs every advantage it can get. There are one or two too many sets of bad guys (and a mob with virtually no henchmen), the sloppy plot often takes no care to justify how certain characters end up at the right (or wrong) place at the right time, the film sometimes gets uncomfortably close to getting off on its own sadism, sometimes to a degree the cartoonish filter can't even suppress, and the romantic subplot (with the prostitute, played by former 'ER' regular Maria Bello) feels like a complete afterthought. But despite all the weaknesses, Payback rarely shies away from what it is-a tough-minded look at colorfully hardened characters staring each other down with violently slapsticky results. Like its main character, Payback is entertainingly true to itself, and in the absence of any real imagination or ingenuity, for an audience tired of movies that trip over themselves trying to please, that goes a long way.