Through the past starkly

Brian Helgeland gamely reimagines a pulp legend in Payback

The new Mel Gibson movie, Payback, is arguably the first major-studio release this year to have even a modicum of aesthetic ambition. For his directorial debut, Brian Helgeland--who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 1997's L.A. Confidential (cowritten with director Curtis Hanson)--has chosen to adapt The Hunter, the first of 20 or so novels written by Donald E. Westlake (under the pseudonym Richard Stark) about a professional thief named Parker.

Let us pause for a minute to praise Donald E. Westlake. If prolificacy were a virtue, Westlake would be, by that criterion alone, a paragon. Since the late '50s he has published more than 40 books under his own name, plus 20 or so as Stark and God knows how many more under at least a half dozen other pseudonyms. But prolificacy isn't enough, of course, as the output of pulpmeisters such as Michael Avallone proves. Westlake, on the other hand, has the benefit of being startlingly good and remarkably versatile.

After he wrote his first few hard-boiled crime novels, Westlake undertook the Parker series in 1962. In The Hunter, Parker (no first name) is introduced as a powerful, smart brute, but as the series progressed he became more and more defined by his professionalism. Anger, vengeance, and emotion gave way to a few simple questions: What move is most efficacious for pulling off the job? For getting away? For surviving? Parker avoids killing not out of any moral sense, but because it always complicates matters.

Westlake achieved greater success with his comic crime novels, a number of which have been made into films, including The Hot Rock (1972), whose hero Dortmunder is the anti-Parker. Accordingly, the two most recent Parker books--Westlake returned to the character not long ago after a hiatus of more than two decades--contain comic moments rarely seen in the earlier novels. The series as a whole is the best extended elaboration of the hard-boiled pulp ethos since Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op novels and stories.

Payback is the sixth Parker film, and its predecessors are a motley bunch. The first was Jean-Luc Godard's Made in U.S.A. (1966), a very loose adaptation of The Jugger. Since then: The Split (1968), The Outfit (1974), and Slayground (1984), with Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, and Peter Coyote, respectively, as Parker.

But hands-down the best Parker film is a previous adaptation of The Hunter. In director John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), one of the first attempts to develop a color version of film noir style, Lee Marvin embodied the spirit of the early Parker books. Westlake's story starts with Parker (named Walker in the film) seeking revenge after being shot and left for dead by his wife and his partner. It was Boorman's conceit that Walker may actually be dead: Point Blank is filled with fragmented flashbacks and surreal landscapes through which an impassive Marvin stalks like a zombie. Developing this notion required some major divergences from the original plot, but Point Blank, despite all its art-house pretensions, still comes closest to capturing the essence of Westlake's character.

Working from the same material, Helgeland takes a wholly different approach. For more than half of the film he follows the book far more closely than did Boorman, at least in terms of story. After recovering from being shot, the Parker character, known as Porter (Mel Gibson), shows up in an unnamed city--all signs suggest that it's Chicago, though Helgeland contends it's a cross between Chicago and New York--in an effort to locate his faithless wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), murder his betrayer Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), and recover his share of the money he and Resnick stole.

But Resnick has used the loot to repay his employer--the Outfit (that is to say, the Mob)--for money he lost through a stupid blunder. Because he has shown the initiative and resourcefulness to make up for his mistake, he escapes the Outfit's wrath and is made a low-level executive in its local operations.

Proceeding with methodical determination, Porter finds his wife, finds Val, and then embarks on a campaign to force the Outfit to return his cut of the stolen cash. This involves confrontations with a series of Outfit bosses, played by William Devane, an unbilled James Coburn, and Kris Kristofferson.

In general, Helgeland pushes the material in a commercial direction, making the light moments lighter and the dark ones darker. He adds a lot of humor, some clever plot elements, and some grueling violence that is far more explicit than anything in either the book or the Boorman film.

Certainly, Gibson's Porter is way different from either Parker or Marvin's Walker. As the story unravels he becomes more sentimental, reviving a romance with Rosie (Maria Bello), a hooker he used to work for. She gets off the film's single best line, a perfect characterization of Porter: "I think all those stories about you being dead were true. You're just too thickheaded to admit it." Unfortunately, as soon as she utters those words Porter starts to soften up, displaying the sort of feelings that Parker (and Walker) would never show.

While the emotions may be softer, the violence isn't, and those who are squeamish about such things should be prepared to turn away or cover their eyes during several scenes. It may not help. Helgeland is savvy enough to know that the most effective violence is that which isn't shown. By far the most cringe-worthy moment here merely shows us Porter's reaction to what is being done to him.

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