Rob’s Car Movie Review: Payback (1999)

I’ve never been sure why Hollywood seemingly forgot about the car movie genre for the majority of the 1990s. With the exception of a small handful of films such as Days of Thunder (1990) and an even smaller selection of television shows and TV movies such as the regrettable remake of Vanishing Point (1997), it is not inappropriate to suggest that there was an utter dearth of such films throughout the decade.

There was an abundance of films in the nineties that weren’t car movies per se, but featured some very cool cars in them for us to ogle. 1999’s Payback was one such film. I thought we’d have a look at it in this month’s installment of Rob’s Car Movie Review!

Payback‘s original theatrical movie poster. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

Payback was a hit film produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Entertainment and was distributed in the United States by Paramount Pictures. The movie was written and directed by veteran screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, based on a novel penned by Donald E. Westlake. Gibson starred in the film and was joined by an illustrious cast that included Maria Bello, William Devane, Lucy Liu, Kris Kristofferson, and James Coburn.

Mel Gibson stars as Porter, a thoroughly mean career criminal hitman. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

Payback tells the story of a career criminal, Porter (Gibson), who after ripping off some Chinese gangsters, gets double-crossed, shot and left for dead by his partner and scheming wife.

Maria Bello as the beautiful and sympathetic madam, Rosie. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

Porter is aided by a sympathetic madam, Rosie (Bello). He hunts down those involved in the double-cross one by one, which eventually leads him up the ladder of a vicious crime syndicate.

The film is essentially a one-dimensional revenge flick in the spirit of classics such as Straw Dogs, Cape Fear, and Mad Max. Payback, however, relies on quirky character development and dark, sardonic humor to make it stand out.

I hadn’t seen the film in quite a while but remembered it to be a competent, though a fairly forgettable example of the genre. This viewing didn’t do much to change my opinion.

An inspired performance by Lucy Liu and copious, well-executed gunplay aren’t enough to distinguish Payback. (Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection.)

There are very good turns by the actors, especially Lucy Liu in the role of a dominatrix. It features slick scenes of over-the-top gunplay, violence, and some witty dialog, but none of this makes for an overall cohesive and enjoyable film. It’s not bad by any means, just, well… unremarkable.

You want to relish in rooting for a thoroughly bad guy in the form of Porter, but there just isn’t enough in the character to get you there like there is in say, Reservoir Dogs. In the end, you’re left wanting. That said, the cinematography, editing and other technical aspects of the film are top-notch, as you would expect of a studio-backed film of this type.

The most critical aspect of the film as far as we are concerned are the movie’s vehicles – there are three very cool muscle cars here.

My favorite car in the film: a 1969 big-block equipped Plymouth Roadrunner. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

The first, and by far my favorite in the film, is a seriously splendid, black 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner. Which happens to be one of my favorite designs of the era. The ’69 Roadrunner was everything a muscle car should be – big, crude and in the case of the movie car, possessing what is obviously a powerplant with saucer-sized pistons.

We never get a look under the hood, but it is clear from the sound of the car that it’s packing either the 335 horsepower 383 V8, or one of the two 440 big-blocks offered that year. Perhaps, the 375 horsepower Super Commando, or possibly the triple carburetor “Six-Pack” version with 390 ponies. Less likely is a Hemi car, as Roadrunners equipped with them were big-dollar items even in 1999 – much too dear to be tortured in a movie.

This primer gray 1974 Chevy Nova meets its demise just seconds after it first appears on screen. I despise Hollywood’s habit of destroying classic cars. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

Another great car in the picture is a ratty 1974 Chevy Nova. Again sporting what sounds like a V8, which in the case of that year’s Nova would constitute a 350ci. The movie car is wearing a light gray primer and is oddly equipped with a roll cage. The cage makes more sense when after only half a minute of screentime, Gibson plows the Nova into a car occupied by the aforementioned Chinese gangsters. Did I mention I hate Hollywood’s penchant for destroying vintage cars?

This Starlight Blue 1974 Dodge Charger makes a brief, though memorable, appearance in the movie. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

The final entry in the triumvirate of muscle in Payback is a Starlight Blue 1974 Dodge Charger. While like most folks, I’ve always been partial to the 1968-1970 design when it comes to Chargers, there’s no disputing the impact the next generation makes on you when you see one.

Despite limited screentime, the ’74 in the film is no different. Those odd angles on the front fenders and rear deck, those quarter window louvers and that inset grille with quad lamps tend to make an impression!

The bad guys in the film drive a variety of big 1980s vintage sedans, including this 1985 Lincoln Town Car which is used to try and kill Porter. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.)

Other cars in the film include a non-muscle bunch of baddie cars, including various and sundry 1980s Cadillac sedans, Lincoln Town Cars, and a Buick Electra Park Avenue.

Payback is a milquetoast film by most standards. I’ve certainly seen and had the displeasure to review far worse, but it is the type of movie that you pretty much forget everything about after watching it, save for the basic plot elements. For me though, it is saved from utter mediocrity by the muscle cars present. As such, I give Payback six out of ten pistons.

See you next time!

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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