by Michelle Erica Green

Mel Gibson Stars In Nouveau Noir

It's a perfect plan: get a partner, steal some cash that's already hot, take half the loot. Porter thinks he's got it made when he and partner Val pull off the heist. Problem is that Val doesn't feel like sharing: he takes Porter's cut, he takes Porter's wife, he takes Porter's life. But unfortunately for Val, he doesn't quite finish the job.

When Porter rises again, he's got only one thing on his mind: he wants what's due him, even if he has to wipe out the entire Mob to get it. Not even the big-city syndicate "The Outfit" can stay safe from Porter. It's Payback time.

Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark, the Paramount film Payback which opens this week is a departure for star Mel Gibson. "You haven't seen him do this type of role before," said director Brian Helgeland. "He has the kind of age and world-weariness that enhances the character of Porter."

Not a typical description of the heartthrob star of the Lethal Weapon and Mad Max series, who played Hamlet onscreen for Franco Zefirelli and produced, directed and starred in the Academy Award-winning Braveheart. "Porter finds himself in are so extreme that you have to laugh at them, or else," explained the Australian-bred actor on the appeal of the role. "Porter takes the gloves off from the get-go. He'll roll with whatever they throw at him. He might be a thief, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's a man completely without honor - he has a perverse sense of justice."

Gibson described the story as "dark yet whimsical...a strange mix, but an interesting journey. It's retro. There's some pretty wacky stuff in it - you're going to see things done that one can't do in polite society."

Director Helgeland, who wrote the screenplay for contemporary film noir L.A. Confidential, concurred: "The movie's got an ironic slant to it that reveals some dark humor. Mel's character is the straight man - no jokes, just funny stuff happening all around him in a twisted sort of way."

Though the film shot primarily in Chicago, it is not set in any specific city and has a feel which makes it difficult to place the era. According to Helgeland, the feel of the movie is "rough around the edges" rather than polished; he wanted to make a more stylized feature which would have been suitable for black-and-white film.

"You never know what city you're in: it's not Chicago, it's not New York," noted the director. "It's a place that [only] exists in a movie, a great place to trap the characters and see what makes them tick." The filmmakers sought a run-down, rusted appearance for their city, a deteriorating setting with cold stone buildings and little flash. In order to keep the time frame uncertain, no buildings appear that were built after 1940, and no '90s cars can be seen.

Helgeland cast Gregg Henry in the role of Val, Porter's double-crossing partner. Best known for unforgettable performances in Body Double, Scarface, and the more recent Star Trek: Insurrection, the theatrical actor called Val "a once in a lifetime part - he's a snappy dresser, a sadist with a little smile. He's trying to work his way up in the criminal world."

Helgeland chose Henry because "he's fun to watch and at the same time he's gonna be real scary when he goes over the edge. Henry's overblown comic relief adds an essential balance to Val's hard-core psychosis." Gibson, too, noted, "Gregg's perfect," adding that "somebody's got to make Porter look good!"

Porter's one source of real support is his girlfriend Rosie, an upscale call girl who has been through as many downs as Porter, who was once her driver. Played by Maria Bello of E.R., Rosie tries to cope with her own bruises as she helps Porter with his.

"Rosie's the only person he can really trust," reflected Bello, who played a strong-willed pediatrician on the Emmy Award-winning medical drama. "We have a past, and we have deep, deep, regrets - there's so much between them, so much history, so many things they should've done, but didn't get a chance to do the first time around." Helgeland said that the first time he saw her on videotape, he knew Bello was his first choice for Rosie.

Academy Award nominee David Paymer plays Stegman, a low-life Mob boss who runs money for Porter. A petty criminal with big dreams, Stegman wants to move up from racketeering and drugs into more serious crimes. Bill Duke, who starred with Gibson in Bird on a Wire, potrays corrupt Detective Hicks, who figures the criminals he pursues can afford to lose a little to a hard-working cop like himself. Rounding out the main cast are William Devane as Outfit big man Carter, and Deborah Kara Unger as Porter's estranged wife Lynn.

Payback was filmed nearly in the opposite of technicolor. Said director of photography Ericson Core, "One of our biggest challenges was how we were going to visually communicate the story, so we used the 'bleached by-pass' method of processing the film to reduce the colors to bare minimums. We are locked inside this city. If there's ever an image of sky, it is broken by jagged pieces of buildings. You feel the grittiness of Porter's world. It adds to the noir quality of the film, a lot of shadows, a lot of edge, a lot of darkness."

"I had to take the color out of the wardrobe," admitted costume designer Ha Nguyen, who worked with Gibson on Lethal Weapon IV. "I concentrated my designs to take advantage of the fabrics, textures and unusual cuts - gray suits, white shirts, funky hats, sleazy jackets, trashy skirts, spiked heels. All Vegas cheap and city cool."

Helgeland, who co-wrote the screenplay with Terry Hayes, said, "I wanted to see a bad guy as the hero, but I didn't want to make excuses for him." Washed out or not, the film sounds noir through and through.

TV Reviews
Get Critical