'Payback' rides on revenge

Mel Gibson is no stranger to violent films, but the nastiness here runshigh

If you don't understand it, get rid of it," says an ignorant thug in "Payback," the new Mel Gibson movie.

The villain is telling a henchman to eliminate a possible enemy, but his words reveal the formula for this kind of filmmaking.

Every plot twist is hammered home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and anything that might deepen or enrich the picture - anything that might require a smidgen of thought or attention from the audience, in other words -is rubbed out by a burst of violence and nastiness.

This is hardly new territory for Hollywood, or for Gibson, whose box-office clout is largely based on the "Lethal Weapon" series.

But he's also made movies like "Hamlet" and "The Man Without a Face," which showed signs of wanting to raise the level of American moviemaking. What's his goal this time around: to sink the very ship he tried to launch? A film as vicious as "Payback" raises serious questions about the priorities such an influential star ought to be cultivating.

Gibson plays a criminal named Porter who's been filled with rage against his ex-wife and former partner ever since they robbed him of $70,000 and left him for dead. Determined to get the money back and not a penny more, since his "principles" wouldn't allow that, he relentlessly tracks them down, casually killing anyone standing in his way. Murder is commonplace in this kind of movie, of course, but "Payback" adds hefty doses of torture and sadomasochism to the bargain. It's hard to remember a mainstream picture that has aimed so much gleeful mayhem at women.

The movie wouldn't be worth any attention if so many high-profile talents weren't involved in it. Brian Helgeland, the director and cowriter, helped script "L.A. Confidential" two years ago. The interesting cast ranges from James Coburn and David Paymer to Kris Kristofferson and Deborah Kara Unger - plus Gibson, who certainly can't claim he did this because he needed the money.

Perhaps the excesses of "Payback" reflect a momentary miscalculation by film-industry professionals who will recognize their mistake and hurry back to a more responsible course. If it turns out to signal a new trend for more pictures where even the advertising prods us to "root for the bad guy," Hollywood will have a lot to answer for.

* Rated R; contains sadistic violence, kinky sex, and foul language. David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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