Payback happens to be the first film I saw that was released in 1999. This isn't because I am not watching many films; on the contrary, it's because I've not found the movies released thus far (it's mid-February) very appealing. I went into Payback with reservations about the basic premise: Mel Gibson playing a thug who's out for revenge against the people who did him wrong.
Payback is funny, fast, exciting, and clever. Based on The Hunter by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake), the plot is about how Porter (Gibson) reclaims his $70,000 from Val Resnick (Gregg Henry) who betrayed Porter and left him for the dead, after they stole $140,000 together. Since Val uses most of the money as an admission fee to join a group of mobsters known as The Outfit, Porter must not only deal with Resnick but also the hit men for The Outfit: Carter (William Devane) and Fairfax (James Coburn), and the big boss (Kris Kristofferson).
Like with Pulp Fiction, there are many characters here that are not exactly "good" but do have a certain seedy sort of appeal (if you can call it that) to them. The list includes two crooked cops (Bill Duke and Jack Conley), a whiny stooge (David Paymer), a untrustworthy wife (Deborah Unger), the obligatory love interest (Mario Bello) and a dominatrix who gets a kick (literally!) out of her work (Ally McBeal's Lucy Liu).
The mixed bag of characters, the gloomy and dark cinematography, and the sound track, all complement the noir atmosphere the film adopts. The acting in general is pretty good, but the movie is definitely driven by Mel Gibson's charm. He makes stealing coins from a homeless beggar on the street amusing, and his one-liners are delivered with the right mixture of detachment and weariness. The movie's tagline is "Get ready to root for the bad guy." In this case, Mel Gibson is too kind and charismatic to be a "bad" guy and that's what makes it all work. Payback is definitely worth the fare.