By Leah Rozen
February 15, 1999 12:00 PM

Mel Gibson, Gregg Henry, Maria Bello

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Tough guys don’t waste time on social niceties. They get right to the point. Take Gibson in Payback, in which he plays a very tough hombre.

“You got a light?” Gibson, a cigarette dangling from his lips, asks an antagonist into whom he has just pumped several bullets.

“No,” the downed man gasps.

“Then what good are you?” barks Gibson, firing a final bullet into the fellow’s brain.

Payback is that kind of movie. It overflows with attitude and gratuitous violence as it follows the mono-maniacal attempts of Gibson, its underworld hero, to recover from mob figures the $70,000 owed him from an earlier job. Gibson is, of course, in his own way a man of honor. All he wants is his $70,000, no more, no less. If he has to whack a bunch of goons in the process, that’s just the way it is.

The movie is based on The Hunter, a 1962 novel by Donald E. Westlake (using the pen name Richard Stark) that also served as the starting point for Point Blank, an ultracool 1967 cult film with a stone-faced Lee Marvin in the Gibson part. Point Blank, directed by John Boorman, was equally violent for its day, but it didn’t seem to derive quite the sadistic pleasure from its scenes of vicious thuggery as does Payback, which dwells lovingly on every bloodied lip and crushed bone.

Then again, it is always entertaining to watch Gibson onscreen because he so relishes playing characters, like his good-guy-bad-guy here, who would walk on razor blades for the sheer fun of it. But he’s the whole show, since in Payback he gets scant help from first-time director Brian Helgeland or the overly wiseacre script. (R)

Bottom Line: Takes a brave heart to sit through this nastiness

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