Payback

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This spring's best new action movie isn't in theaters. You might think you've seen it, but you probably haven't. "Payback" is back, this time kicking ass the way the director intended.

"You don't make pictures for the elite," actor-producer Mel Gibson says today, explaining why in 1998 he, Paramount and Warner Bros. Pictures took the mean-streets, mean-spirited movie away from freshman director Brian Helgeland. Gibson, reportedly, was "caught in the middle" of the mess, one insider says in the extras.

The new plan was to make Gibson's character funnier and more accessible, more like that "Lethal Weapon" guy. After 10 days of reshoots, a new third act was tacked on, a voice-over track tried to explain things a la "Blade Runner," and Kris Kristofferson walked on as a weird new player.

"I wanted the audience to be able to travel with this guy a bit more," Gibson says on the DVD.

Still, audiences were amazed at how brutal Gibson's character was when they had to "Get ready to root for the bad guy," as the marketing urged. Critics wrote it off as another promising movie desperately in search of an ending.

Same old story about artists and Hollywood. For years, Helgeland ("A Knight's Tale") has been haunted by this "ghost of an experience," says "Payback" moll Deborah Kara Unger. But this time, someone called for a rewrite of reality.

In 2005, Paramount and Gibson gave Helgeland another shot at the film. The tapes turned up missing, so the director and his editor slowly recut the work using film. And so we have "Payback: Straight Up -- The Director's Cut."

Now, this is one seriously hard-boiled movie. "We're living in a noir world here," says Helgeland, who points out that virtually everyone portrayed in the film is a crook, a dirty cop or a dirtbag.

Gibson plays Porter, a small-time robber who comes back to town looking for the partner who stole his loot and his wife. While collecting on his karmic debts, Porter takes on the syndicate and the Asian drug dealers, beats up a woman (a scene the studios wouldn't touch back then) and achieves a significant body count. Supporting actors Lucy Liu, Gregg Henry and Maria Bello all do fine work.

"It's valid," Gibson says of the new DVD version. "It's a good film. They're ... different films."

Paramount's release doesn't include the 1999 version for comparison, unfortunately. Extras include a polite director's commentary, but the one to catch is "Same Story -- Different Movie," that spends a half-hour on the resurrection. The witnesses keep it civil, but you get a good feel for what was what.

"Payback" comes from the crime novel "The Hunter," first filmed as "Point Blank" with Lee Marvin -- an even better movie from 1969. In another interesting extra, author Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) talks about the film and the other Parker (Porter) paperback originals from the 1960s.

On the DVD version of "Payback," the audio and video are suitably rousing. They're even stronger on the high-def discs, though in places the contrasts and colors seem too jacked up for a gritty film that drifts in and out of bleach-bypass scenes. The DVD retails for $19.99, while the HD DVD and Blu-Ray Disc versions go for $29.99. Extras are the same on all three versions.

Glenn Abel's new DVD blog can be found at dvdspindoctor.com.

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