Yesterday evening, I made a trip to Wally-Mart and picked up a copy of the Payback Straight-Up: Director's Cut DVD. I had originally intended to wait a while, but my impatience got the better of me, and my beloved was surprisingly accomodating.
When I got home, I decided that the best way to appreciate the new version of the movie was by watching the original, studio-and-Mel-compromised, 1999 cut again first. Well, I did – and you know what? I still like it. It's a great little hardboiled flick, and if there's a bit too much sympathy generated for the Porter character, well, it's okay. It works, mostly. And, since the added humor is appropriately wry and dark, it doesn't detract too much from the grittiness of the story.
That said, though, I like Straight-Up better.
Much darker and drier. No voice-over narration to clearly – and patronizingly – spell out everything to an underestimated audience. (Worst offender: "Crooked cops. Are there any other kind?" as if we didn't get it, from their actions and dialogue.) The scenes that remain in common between the two versions sometimes have different dialogue (obviously altered and post-dubbed in the original theatrical cut) that makes Porter far less sympathetic and/or amusing. No more "obligatory Mel Gibson torture scene." Hell, Kris Kristoferson isn't in this cut. Even the music score is new.
The tone is quite different, much closer to the 70's crime films that director Helgeland was inspired by. Even the look is different – in order to assemble this version, Helgeland and the editor had to go back to the original film elements, so, instead of giving the movie the cold, blue-gray tones of the theatrical cut (a look that I happened to love, by the way), they instead went with a high-contrast, almost bleached-out look. Frankly, it took me a few reels to get used to it, but once I did, I realized that it, too, added to the 70's feel of the flick, and decided I liked it.
The entire third act is completely and dramatically different, but there are major changes scattered throughout. Frankly, this is the best performance that Mel Gibson has given since The Road Warrior. In this version, Porter is much closer to the Richard Stark "Parker" character, and for that reason, more than any other, this is now my preferred cut.
But I'm definitely hanging onto my old DVD. I've got a feeling that I'll be watching both versions from time to time in the years to come, depending on my mood, and there are a few things in the theatrical cut that I still very much enjoy. This new edition does not replace the old one for me, but does improve upon it in most ways, and I'm grateful for it.
The behind-the-scenes documentary is quite good, too. Both Mel and director Brian Helgeland seem to be up-front and frank about their parts in the convoluted production history of this film, with Mel making some good points about why the original changes were felt necessary. Helgeland never backs down from his position, but also admits that this "Director's Cut" isn't exactly the one he was fighting for in '98, either. Overall, though, I gotta give Mel his props for facilitating this new version. I won't say it took guts, necessarily, but it was a stand-up move on his part.
If you're a fan of the theatrical cut of Payback, I highly recommend picking up Straight-Up.
ADDENDUM – I just found out that John Flynn, director of the 1973 Richard Stark adaptation, The Outfit, recently passed away. The Outfit was a pretty damned decent '70s crime film. Robert Duvall made a suitably badass Parker (called "Earl Macklin" in this one) and a number of veteran noir actors – like Robert Ryan, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, and Jane Greer – filled out the strong supporting cast. It really should be on DVD.
Flynn was a journeyman director who also directed stuff like Lock-Up and Out for Justice. A solid filmmaker, if not much of a stylist; Rolling Thunder and The Outfit are probably his best films. My condolences to his family.