Movies can go slumming just as easily as people. Case in point: Payback, an appealingly/appallingly nasty bit of work from director-cowriter Brian Helgeland and star Mel Gibson that yanks the viewer back into the grungy world of Nixon-era crime thrillers. Interesting thing, though: On its merry way down the sewer, Payback passes its own original source, a 1967 Lee Marvin vehicle in which director John Boorman (Deliverance) lifted gangster noir up onto a plane of weirdly existential purity.
Which is to say that Point Blank is to the late ’60s what Payback is to the late ’90s: ambitious, ambiguous, and trippy versus ironic, retro, and skanky. Since the Gibson version is hitting stores this week, it’s worth digging up Boorman’s film for an irresistible rental double bill. If nothing else, you’ll gain an appreciation for what filmmakers could get away with 30 years ago, as well as confirm your cynicism regarding modern filmmakers’ inability to walk it like they talk it.
Point Blank and Payback are both based on The Hunter (1962), by crime writer Donald E. Westlake (under the pseudonym Richard Stark). Subtitled ”A Novel of Violence,” it tells of a thief named Parker, who, after being left for dead (on an abandoned Alcatraz in Point Blank) by his double-crossing wife and his best friend, Mal, embarks on an implacable course of revenge against them and, ultimately, the higher-ups of a criminal corporation called ”The Outfit.”
Point Blank strips that already skeletal story line down to its Zen essentials. The lead character has been aptly renamed Walker, and, as played by Marvin in what may be the actor’s most emblematic performance, he strides through Los Angeles like a gangland golem: watchful, unstoppable, frighteningly silent. As Walker bloodily works his way up ”The Organization’s” chain of command there’s the sense that he may not even be of this world. When he sends hooker/lover/sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson) in to trap Mal — and then coolly pays her off afterward — she seals away her hurt by telling him ”You died at Alcatraz all right.”
Where Point Blank transcends pulp, though, Payback dives right in, understanding that a blast of fetid air feels fresh in these politically correct days. Still, the notion of a thoroughly rotten hero was novel in 1967 and it isn’t 30 years later, so how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Pulp Fiction?
Helgeland tries to dodge the issue by anachronistically setting Payback in the early ’70s. It’s a bit surreal: The characters wear contemporary clothing and the year is never specified, but even if the rotary phones and period cars aren’t a tip-off, Chris Boardman’s brass-‘n’-percussion score is pure Starsky and Hutch-era Lalo Schifrin. And it works. For a while.