Through the past starkly

Brian Helgeland gamely reimagines a pulp legend in Payback

For those who come to the film with no baggage, who have never read Westlake or seen Point Blank, Helgeland's film is, despite occasional gruesomeness, a polished, fast-moving thriller with a '90s style. Gibson negotiates Porter's not-always-plausible changes believably.

The supporting cast is uniformly first-rate. Gregg Henry--one of those guys you've seen in a million bit film roles and bigger parts in TV movies--should make a big leap forward with this performance. He makes Resnick a totally loathsome villain--an utter bully and, like most bullies, an even more complete coward. David Paymer and Lucy Alexis Liu are also memorable in far broader roles, but John Glover, who shows up for about two minutes, and Bill Duke are wasted.

Helgeland makes a solid debut as director here, finding a new angle through which to view the Parker character, and doing so without exhausting the possibilities. Who would have thought that a pulp paperback original from the early '60s would prove rich enough to bring forth two film adaptations and still leave room for a third?

Directed by Brian Helgeland. Written by Brian Helgeland and Terry Hayes, based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake). Starring Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, William Devane, and James Coburn. Opens Friday.

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