Mel Gibson’s Revenge … Working Mom As Circus Freak

Mel Gibson’s Revenge

Violence as entertainment? I’m probably not the one to say this, given my aversion to violent films, but Payback entertained me royally.

This horrifyingly bloody update of John Boorman’s classic 1967 film noir Point Blank starring Lee Marvin is so relentlessly violent it can produce nausea, but it’s a Mel Gibson movie above everything else, so even when an army of archfiends hammer his toes off one digit at a time, it’s difficult for him to keep a straight face. The violence reaches a point of comic overkill. And the movie is so theatrically well made you almost hate yourself for having such a good time.

This is not your baby sitter’s dreamboat idea of Mel Gibson. And the state-of-the-art automobiles he demolishes are not your father’s Oldsmobile. The star is as hard-boiled as Lee Marvin was in the 1967 original, but he has a humorous edge. When he rips the ring right out of a drug dealer’s pierced nose, you can almost see the tongue in his cheek. Even his tough-guy narration (“Old habits die hard-if you don’t kick them, they’ll kick you”) sounds like a bemused send-up of Mickey Spillane paperbacks. And the dizzy spin director-writer Brian Helgeland gives to the underworld Mr. Gibson takes on single-handedly makes the landscape look more like Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville than any American crimescape you’ve ever seen in a Humphrey Bogart flick. There are times when the dialogue takes on the comic book dimensions of a Batman episode, others when the brilliantly staged action becomes almost abstract.

The result is a superb amalgam of pulp gangster thriller and preposterous fairy tale, with Mr. Gibson playing a figure from the past stranded in a futuristic setting-a bullet-headed gangster as an anachronism in a depersonalized technological society where personal integrity is as retro as big band jazz.

The basic premise remains. It’s the one about the penny-ante thug double-crossed by his junkie wife and her murderous lover who steal his $70,000 share of a heist, plug him with two bullets in the back and leave him for dead. After five months on his back, he’s hopping mad and ready for revenge. Back from the dead, he finds his wife with a hypodermic needle jammed into her corpse, his ex-partner shacked up with a homicidal Oriental dominatrix named Pearl, and his $70,000 in the hands of a secret crime organization called “The Outfit,” which, in the age of millennium crime, has banker’s hours, designer suits, computers and cell phones.

William Devane, one of the outfit’s white-collar “front office” men, is a wrinkled pit bull with picket fence teeth so tough he sucks lemon rinds while he’s being shot through the heart. Moving up the ladder, infiltrating the Outfit at every level, Mel finally meets up with the head honcho (Kris Kristofferson) who interrupts his instructions for a mob hit to present his preppy son with the keys to a new Ferrari for his 17th birthday. All Mel wants is his stolen $70,000 and he doesn’t care how many goons he has to decapitate, stab, ignite, blow up or beat the living crap out of to get it. The fun is the way he goes about it, with the aid of a prostitute (Maria Bello) and a vicious guard dog.

There are some surprising death scenes, and since the body count is always mounting, plenty of them. The movie also indiscriminately destroys a number of very expensive cars, some of James Coburn’s exquisite alligator luggage, and at least one genuine Aubusson carpet. Nice guy Gregg Henry, oafish David Paymer, foppish James Coburn (mysteriously unbilled in the credits) and oily John Glover are just a few of the colorful subsidiary characters who do not survive the mayhem. The men are so mean they have facial muscles that twitch, and all of the women look like 40 miles of ruptured asphalt on an unmarked detour.

Payback was written by Brian Helgeland, who wrote one of the best crime epics ever made ( L.A. Confidential ) as well as one of the worst ( Conspiracy Theory ). As a writer, he’s in full throttle here. As a director, he knows about visual bas-relief, too. It’s a very black film, despite the humorous touches. It even looks black, as though the skin tones have been air-brushed out of the color negative with acid. Everyone is in need of a blood transfusion and even at high noon, when the rats come out of their holes, it looks like midnight.

To appease jittery Mel Gibson fans who don’t want their centerfold messed up beyond recognition, there is even a happy ending, providing something for every audience desire. The movie’s central theme is “If you don’t understand it, get rid of it.” By following their own cynical intuition, Mr. Gibson, the reformed hooker and the dog are the only things still standing when the dust settles. The audience is dazed but satisfied, and 1999 has its first breathlessly exciting 10-ton dynamite hit.

Working Mom As Circus Freak

Cultural bankruptcy finds otherwise reasonable and intelligent critics laboring vainly to fill space with thoughtful things to say about movies they would ordinarily pass right by in a video store. Hollywood shot its wad at Christmas, and we’re filtering through the residue with junk like In Dreams, Varsity Blues and Another Day in Paradise . Case in point: The 24-Hour Woman , a comic exploration of the competing demands of career and motherhood on the feisty producer of a morning TV show of the same name who eventually goes mad to prove she can “have it all.” And you thought Oprah was overpaid.

The 24-Hour Woman is the kind of show that shoves everything down the gizzards of stressed-out housewives, from recipes for designer burritos to advice on how to outsmart cellulite. But when its larky, 24-hours-a-day producer (Rosie Perez) passes her home pregnancy test with the help of an oven timer, the show goes into ratings overkill with baby-crazy maternity fashions, baby songs and child psychology. Ms. Perez hires a new assistant (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, from Secrets & Lies ), a married mother of three who does not have enough time to cope with the spiraling demands on her, despite the fact that her husband stays home and does the cooking and potty training. The movie painfully guides us through every jangled nerve in the ritualistic horrors of a woman juggling two lives with a cell phone attached to her ear.

We get the abused spouse thing (Ms. Perez is also married to the male co-host of the show, an ambitious actor who is seldom home), the neurotic nanny thing, the exasperated in-laws thing, the conflict-in-schedules thing. We are even treated to the procedural techniques of a breast suction machine in action. Desperately trying to book guests, organize a birthday party, cope with a demented boss (Patti LuPone) and negotiate New York traffic at the same time, the career-obsessed heroine finally succumbs to short-circuit burnout and blows a fuse. The movie says there is nothing like cracking up on camera, waving a loaded gun at a man in front of millions of viewers, and getting arrested on felony charges to get a girl’s priorities straight. The moral is, it’s fun to be a workaholic, but despite an appealing performance by Rosie Perez, the film, written and directed by Nancy Savoca, is pure banana oil.

Isn’t it fascinating that the liberated women in so-called “millennium” films of the 90’s show none of the disintegrating enzymes or fluctuating estrogen levels that accompany hard drinking or tough living among women in real life? Somebody drew dark circles under Ms. Perez’s bright brown eyes to show that her 24-hour job is getting her down, but you can see the pancake. In Another Day in Paradise , Melanie Griffith’s best friend is a hypodermic needle filled with heroin, yet she always looks radiantly ready for a close-up. What a crock. Burnout by Bergdorf Goodman.

Like a Virgin, Only Not

It’s “let’s get laid” time again among the California bimbo set, and a fiasco called She’s All That -aimed at the kind of audience that slobbers over back issues of Teen World -suggests sex is a great way to meet people. Freddie Prinze Jr., a bus-and-truck Joseph Fiennes, plays a rejected high school campus Romeo who bets his horny buddies he can take any dorky girl (”a Chelsea Clinton-type thing”) and turn her into a prom queen in six weeks. The girl he selects for this Pygmalion makeover is the school weirdo (Rachael Leigh Cook, a poor man’s Winona Ryder clone), a freaky, bespectacled art student whose father builds swimming pools. In the six weeks that follow, the movie turns into Bitch Magnet Meets Super Freak , with no fireworks, no surprises and no tolerable moments, but plenty of rap music, farting and more dull subplots than a development site for condominiums.

There’s one production number in which Mr. Prinze comes to life long enough to do a Saturday Night Fever dance, but for the most part this is the first movie I’ve ever seen devoted exclusively and obsessively to sex in which the participants are totally sexless. There doesn’t seem to be anybody on screen with a brain the size of a garbanzo bean. In a misguided attempt to out-raunch There’s Something About Mary , one boy rips out his pubic hair and serves it on a pizza. The embalmed script contains such stupefying exchanges as this: “His dad owns Harrison Ford.” “The actor?” “No, the car dealership.” The numbing direction is the kind you usually get on rejected TV sitcom pilots for Suzanne Somers. The acting is on the level of Carvel ice cream commercials.

In the film’s only shock, Anna Paquin turns up in a brief role as Mr. Prinze’s little sister. Why would an Oscar-winning actress take a bit part in a rotten New Age teen flick? The question marks just keep on coming. You’ve heard about “banned in Boston”? She’s All That should have been “burned in Burbank.”