Monday, July 04, 2005

Point Blank

John Boorman's Point Blank and Brian Helgeland/Mel Gibson's Payback are based on the same novel, a Donald Westlake pulp thriller called "The Hunter." (Westlake wrote it under the psyeudonym Richard Stark). They tell the exact same story, and yet they are extraordinarily different movies.

I got the opportunity to interview Gibson and Helgeland when Payback was initially released to theaters. Their intent was, near as I could tell, to siphon all the grit out of this story, all the ugliness and negativity, and channel that into an action noir film as violent and darkly comic as it was bleak. It's a mostly successful film, an angry, bitter little thriller in which the ads urged you to "root for the bad guy."

What really amazes me is how much more Boorman was able to extract from the same story. His film shares with Payback a wry, and pitch-black sense of humor, and a penchant for bloody fisticuffs, but beyond that there's very little to connect the two. Gibson and Helgeland's film is pulpy mainstream entertainment, buoyed by one of the world's biggest stars and goofy cameos by the likes of Lucy Liu and Kris Kristofferson.

Point Blank is nothing less than a meditation on morality, memory and death as seen through the twisted mind of a man obsessed with revenge.

So here's the story of both films. A lifelong criminal named Walker (Lee Marvin in Point Blank, Gibson in the newer film) is double-crossed after pulling off a large caper with his friend Reese (John Vernon in Blank) and his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker). Reese shoots him in the back while Lynne takes off with the stolen money.

But Walker is not dead. Some time later, he reappears in the criminal underworld with the intention of getting back at Reese and getting back the $93,000 stolen from him.

But things are not so simple. Reese has given the money over to a mysterious, corporate-like criminal syndicate, operated by three shadowy figures known as Carter, Fairfax and Brewster. In Gibson's version, he elongated this section of the movie, allowed you to get to know Carter, Fairfax and Brewster and how their little organization worked. In the end, he managed to pull of a twist in which Walker takes out the entire Syndicate in one grand explosion.

Boorman's film doesn't come together quite so well, structurally. He never bothers to show us the inside of the Syndicate, or even to properly explain what it is that they do. All we see is Walker cutting a bloody path through their operation, making increasingly hostile demands for the return of his $93,000.

Along the way, he manages to recruit his sister-in-law (Angie Dickenson) to help him, and of course they start to fall for one another. Gibson scuttled this entire sub-plot, having Walker take up with an old prostitute friend, but I can't imagine why. There's far more inherent drama when you make the two girls sisters rather than strangers.

But explaining the story doesn't go very far in explaining Boorman's film and its impact nearly 40 years later. He tells the story in a fractured style, entirely from Walker's perspective. Steven Soderbergh ripped off the technique entirely for his Terence Stamp revenge thriller The Limey, and he admits as much on the audio commentary with Boorman on the new Point Blank DVD.

Each time Walker is forced to hurt someone for information (which is often), he flashes back to other violent incidents in his recent past. Whenever he gets close to someone, he reflects on the last few girls he's been with. Sometimes, these quick flashbacks give us more insight into Walker's past or his motivations, but most of the time they are simply disorienting (as they would be in real life).

It becomes questionable whether Walker is even completely aware of what he's doing at any given moment. The film's opening five minutes, for example, is a dizzying cavalcade of imagery, from Walker's face obscured by psychedelic party lights (an image repeated later in the film) to the moment of Reese's betrayal of Walker, to the moment of Walker's ultimate victory. As in The Limey, could it be that the entire film is Walker's mental recollection of these events, rather than a faithful retelling of them?

I also have to mention the fantastic LA cinematography of Philip Lathrop. He shot a lot of famous films, like Days of Wine and Roses and Americanization of Emily and The Driver, another great-looking movie which I previously reviewed on the blog here. Los Angeles takes on real menace in this movie, even during the bright, sunny days, where the shadows from palm trees partially obscure everyone's faces. Visually, I was reminded of Stephen Frears' The Grifters, a film scripted by "Hunter" novelist Donald Westlake himself.

So, okay, I've praised the movie but I haven't told you that it's just a ton of fun to watch, an amusing and unexpected 60's noir with a terrific, really amazing performance from Lee Marvin, ranking among his best. It comes out on Tuesday on DVD.

No comments: