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Payback (1995)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Unremarkable but Satisfying Noir"
3 stars

Released straight to home video, it's no great shakes but far from a waste of time.

Payback is a low-budget crime drama heavily derivative of novelist James M. Cain’s well-revered The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it’s not bad for what it is. Nothing spectacular, mind you, and I can’t say so much as an iota of it stays with your afterward, but if there’s a boring scene in it, it escaped my attention. C. Thomas Howell, who was excellent nine years prior as the hero in the classic horror picture The Hitcher and whose career has unfortunately declined since, stars as Oscar Bonsetter, a convict serving out his time in a Northern California prison who runs afoul of his cell block’s malicious martinet of a guard -- he believes Oscar has been made privy to the location of half-a-million dollars an elderly inmate and friend of Oscar’s stole; and when Oscar refuses to give up the location, he’s savagely beaten by the guard, Tom “Gully” Gullerman (Marshall Bell), who shortly thereafter leaves his job. Oscar is paroled a few months later, and he makes his way to a rundown diner in a small town by the ocean; apparently, the location of the money is somewhere around there. Tending the place is the gorgeous Rose (a bleach-blonde Joan Severance), with Oscar managing to get hired on as a part-time cook, though it’s quite the understatement that he’s floored upon meeting Rose’s husband -- the very same Tom from the prison, who’s blind due to a car accident and who can’t tell Oscar from his voice. Sexually unsatisfied, Rose is all too receptive to Oscar’s advances, and it’s not long before they start a torrid affair, with their first and most memorable sex scene occurring in the kitchen with animalistic fervor, which was also the highpoint of Postman. From here the movie serves up an array of plot twists and double crosses, culminating in a finale that really does manage to take the audience by surprise. Howell is consistently interesting in his role -- with longish hair and a Fun Manchu mustache, he’s a long ways away from his teen heartthrob roles in The Outsiders and Secret Admirer; while I can’t say he’s particularly convincing as a hardened ex-convict, Howell puts enough effort into it so we’re willing to buy him in the role anyway. Severance is affecting as well, and she matches up well with Howell: we can believe there’s something going on between them. (She’s just as vivid a femme fatale as she was in the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor See No Evil, Hear No Evil.) But the real surprise is Bell, who manages to suggest some semblances of depth in his villainous characterization, deftly escaping cliché and Gully emerging as a creditable character. Oh, the screenplay by Sam Bernard, who’s perpetrated brain-dead nonsense on the unsuspecting public by the likes of 3:15 The Moment of Truth and Rad, doesn’t have the sturdiest of structures, but the dialogue is par enough for the course, and the built-in psychological undercurrents have a good deal of verity. Payback is small-scale and deliberately paced, and even if the director, Anthony Hickox (Waxwork, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth), isn’t a stalwart, he shapes his scenes adequately enough and propels the story forth. I won’t give the ending away, but if you’re in the right mood it might ignite a darkly comic sensibility in you that’s naughtily enjoyable.

Perfect viewing for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

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originally posted: 06/03/15 08:26:37
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  10-Jan-1995 (R)

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