Friday, November 20, 2009

Bait and switch.

So, last week (when I was still employed) I was in The Exchange store on McKnight road when I saw that they had reduced the prices of all of their HD DVDs to around $5 each.  Being one of the few people in existence to actually own an HD DVD player, but not quite having the money to buy a huge variety of media for it, I decided to get just one to add to my admittedly small collection while the discs were still available.  The movie I decided on was Payback starring Mel Gibson.

For those not in the know, Payback is a 1999 crime drama/black comedy starring Gibson as the antihero who is only ever referred to as "Porter."  It's basically about the character's betrayal by those closest to him, and his survival and revenge as he seeks to get back the money that he views as rightfully his.  It's dark, but still manages to be funny and intense.  All around it was a pretty good movie, a complete package.  I was looking forward to sharing it with my friends, and it wasn't until I got it home until I noticed the words "Straight Up: the Director's Cut" on the box.

I thought, "What could they possibly change?  This probably adds additional footage, ala The Lord of the Rings, and that was awesome!"  Now, It had been years since I last saw the theatrical version, so I didn't really even notice any changes until about halfway through the movie, but upon reflection they had changed the beginning too.  There is no explanation as to how Porter survived being shot in the back in this version, and there is no voice-over to walk the audience through the setup.  It's pretty straightforward anyway, but the Mel Gibson narration in the original saved the characters from having to explain the obvious to each other during the film, which was curiously put back in; it just seems forced.  The Porter in this version of the film is a much less likable guy too, as director Brian Helgeland filmed a rather wincing scene of spousal abuse (though admittedly, Porter's wife had it coming) that was thankfully absent in the theatrical version.  I didn't mind its inclusion so much, I expected extra scenes.  What I didn't expect though was the completely different ending to the film.  Fans of the original might be surprised to discover that the original "Director's Cut" of the film didn't score well with audiences, but Helgeland, in trying to remain true to the inspiration for the movie (the book The Hunter by Donal Westlake) refused to make any changes, and then left the production (as shown in the "special features" of this disk), and John Myhre and Mel Gibson took over the film and made it watchable.

Now, I'm not some film elitist (I personally think that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the one of the dullest and at the same time most confusing films I've ever seen, and I encourage people not to watch it), but neither do I like when a movie is just the equivalent of Hollywood masturbating (Lethal Weapons 3 and 4 fall into that category, for you Gibson fans).  Payback was a romp in film noir in the style of 30s gangster action at a time when everyone else was trying to emulate Quentin Tarentino (don't get me wrong, I like Tarentino too, but only Tarentino is Tarentino).  The point here is that it was really kind of an homage, but kind of original in its own right.  The original director's version though, is the kind of snobbish artistic crime drama that equates to "If you don't like it, it's because you don't understand it" crap that's found in too many independent films nowadays, and has very little business being in a studio production.

It's not that the film's original ending is bad, mind you, it's just that the changes to the end will leave the viewer extremely unsatisfied in that "crime does not pay" sort of way.  You want Porter to succeed, but even the studio realized that he needed something worth fighting for.  In the original film the driving point was the principal of the situation: at one point in the movie he needed closure not just to the money that was owed to him by Val Resnick and the Outfit, but also to protect Rosie, the (cliche even by Hollywood standards) "prostitute with a heart of gold."  In this director's cut of the film, I found myself questioning why Rosie was even with Porter at the end.  The theatrical release's "boss" villain, Bronson, was played by Kris Kristofferson, but was originally supposed to be a faceless woman's voice on the phone.  You are never explicitly shown her, though porter is undone by a woman in the end, which most audiences will naturally assume to be Bronson.  The while omission of Kristofferson is obvious given the change in tone of the film, there is a criminal misuse of James Coburn - he's still in the movie, but his role is reduced to simply calling the Bronson character.

The theatrical version of Payback had a very satisfying ending, with the "bad" criminals of the film getting their comeuppance through their own machinations; Porter gets his money, gets the girl, and only gets maimed for his trouble.  The director's cut version is far less so; Porter's scheme ends in a far more realistic way, but the ending still manages to be ambiguous.  It leaves you feeling empty as the tone of the second act of the film regresses into an action-less, humorless, shell of a third act.  I'm sure that film students all over will praise it for it's thoughtful foreshadowing and metaphor, while the rest of us just scratch our heads and wonder how a movie studio that produces regularly produces films like Transformers Revenge of the Fallen and Hotel For Dogs can make a movie more enjoyable than the guy who wrote Man on Fire and directed A Knight's Tale (all right, so I like that movie, but I'm not alone!).

Payback Straight Up: The Director's Cut is simply the most disappointing director's cut I've ever seen, right after Blade Runner.  Please, please, if you have fond memories of the original, skip this watered down and ill-conceived version.

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