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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

With the Subtlety of a Sledgehammer




No actor should have to mouth the ludicrous, hard-boiled dialogue - lines like, "What's the matter? Cat got your crotch?" - that lends "Payback," the new Mel Gibson action-adventure film playing at the American House of Cinema, the flavor of a stale "Saturday Night Live" parody.


This bizarre dud of a genre movie, adapted from the same Richard Stark novel ("The Hunter") that inspired the 1967 film "Point Blank," is set in a dank, urban no-man's land that might be called Film Noir Manque. Here sadism rules, all women are prostitutes, the cops corrupt and morality a matter of evil versus evil.


Gibson is Porter, a career criminal who, after recovering from near-fatal gunshot wounds at the hands of his double-crossing partner, Val (Gregg Henry), embarks on a killing spree to recover the $70,000 his sidekick stole from him.


Before he's finished, but not before a scene in which we watch his agonized grimaces as two of his toes are smashed by a sledgehammer, Porter goes up against the kingpins of a crime organization called the Outfit, in a battle that culminates with some cheesy cut-rate pyrotechnics.


"Payback," directed by Brian Helgeland, one of the writers responsible for the elegant screenplay of "L.A. Confidential," comes at you (not just your toes but your mind) with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.


In the movie's silliest scene, Porter interrupts the sadomasochistic idyll of Val and his pet dominatrix, Pearl (Lucy Liu), who gleefully takes over the beating up of her sleazy consort once Porter tires of kicking him in the stomach.


Its smirking sense of humor and generic self-consciousness suggest that "Payback" would like to think of itself as a hip descendant of "Pulp Fiction." But the movie is utterly devoid of narrative ingenuity and visual and dramatic flair. Its dark bluish hue and downtown urban landscape (much of it was shot in Chicago) suggest a no-budget "Batman." Chris Boardman's dreary score clouds the movie in an atmosphere that suggests second-hand "Shaft."


Gibson, affecting his best macho growl, is at least able to keep a straight face through the tortured purple prose his character, who narrates the movie, is forced to deliver.


But Henry's Val is a garish comic-book fiend, while Kris Kristofferson, as the king of all underworld kingpins, delivers yet another nonperformance, speaking in a dull, sepulchral monotone, his eyes squinted shut.


What it lacks in originality, "Payback" tries to make up for in sadistic gore. Before they begin shooting and slicing one another, the characters take cackling relish in describing the tortures they would like to inflict. Amid the countless beatings that are administered, one kick in the groin won't do. There have to be at least three per scene.


What one word might best describe "Payback"? How about "loathsome"?


- Stephen Holden


New York Times Service