It also marks a return to his hard boiled action roots. Gibson hit the scene in 1979’s Mad Max. He played the title role, a man driven to the edge with rage following the murder of his wife and child. Along with the Mad Max sequels, Gibson hit the big time as another unhinged tough guy, again after his wife was killed. Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon made Gibson an action star of the 80’s. With his newfound success, his characters became much more sanitized. He still did action movies, but the grit was gone. 1999’s murky revenge thriller Payback was his first attempt at recapturing the darkness.
Gibson plays Porter, a small time criminal lacking in moral fibre. During a heist, he is double crossed by his wife and his partner, and shot and left for dead. His sadistic partner, Val Resnick needs the proceeds of the crime to rejoin ‘The Syndicate’, an organised crime outfit. Several months later, Resnick is living the high life back with his criminal fraternity. The good times can’t last however. Porter is back in town, and on the rampage. He wants what he’s owed, his half of the takings that his former partner stole. But Resnick no longer has the money, he used it to buy back in, and his bosses tell him to handle it or he’ll be cut loose. Porter however has no patience for hierarchy, and will go as high as he needs to to get paid.
Payback is a loose remake of Lee Marvin’s Point Blank. Gibson wanted it shot in black and white to give it the same dirty, noir feeling. The studio wouldn’t allow it, so director Brian Helgeland drained as much colour out of the film as possible. It works. You can understand why black and white wouldn’t have been commercially viable, but the muted colours achieve the dark, gritty effect Gibson wanted. As Porter makes his way up the chain of command, with no compunction for who he takes out in the process, there are no redeemable characters. Everyone is guilty, and everyone is made to pay for their sins one way or another.
The pace is perfect. The storyline never slows down for a second, as Porter is pushed from pillar to post, given the run-around as he tries to find the man who CAN give him his money. The snappy story twists and turns, and as Porter causes more trouble several different factions seek him out, trying to stop the protagonist from rocking the boat. The set pieces are intelligently crafted, the different threads tied together and paid off perfectly in the climatic scenes.
Mel Gibson is great in this movie. He displays charm, charisma, comedy timing, and despite the fluffier roles he had become known for, you completely buy his weary, hard as nails persona. He recaptures the dark, dangerous essence of his earlier characters successfully. Too successfully in fact.
Gibson’s core audience had changed as his cinematic persona had. Where he had once appealed to the male 18-30 demographic, he was now seen as the romantic male lead, more apt to drawing a more mature, more female audience. Viewers going in to Payback wanted to see the fluffy Mel Gibson, and were horrified by the law breaking anti-hero they found instead, completely devoid of remorse.
It’s understandable really. The violent shades-of-grey thriller, filled with B-actors playing reprehensible villains wasn’t their thing. The younger male audience avoided Payback, the now-matinee idol Gibson not on their radar. It’s a pity, because if Payback had found more of its audience, it wouldn’t have been so under appreciated. And even today, they may have looked back at it as it deserves, as a classic of its genre. Based on the lack of buzz around Edge of Darkness, it seems Gibson may miss his audience once again.
The problem now is that he no longer has one. Following an 8 year hiatus, not to mention the public indiscretion that may have contributed to this extended on-screen absence, there’s no-one to claim him. It may well take a few great movies before this situation begins to change.
Edge Of Darkness hits theatres in the US and UK this Friday 29th January.
Payback is available now on DVD.