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Payback, The (1994)

aka The Vegas Blood Bath
Directed by Ron Atkins
Cutthroat Video VHS

There was a dark time in the 90s when everyone quoted Reservoir Dogs, especially the monologue about “Like a Virgin.” Holy shit, they’d say, that movie is so fucking good! Then they’d put on the soundtrack and drone on about the juxtaposition of “Stuck in the Middle” and the torture scene, and oh fuck, I love how that film is so nonlinear; it’s fucking genius. And when you tell them, actually, it’s been done many, many times before, they call you a hater, and then you have to explain, I’m not a hater, I’m just saying it’s not “genius.” Then for Halloween, everyone would dress up as Mr. White, and everyone would have to explain that they were Mr. White and not any of the other characters because Harvey Keitel is king shit. There would occasionally be a guy dressed up as the one who gets shot in the stomach. You know, to be different from the rest.

The Payback is what happens if one of those guys who listened to the Madonna monologue on repeat made his own movie. For five dollars. And zero script.

Cue an interstitial title screen:
“Las Vegas Nevada [sic]”
“Doug’s Story”

Doug (played by director Ron Atkins) is sitting on a doughy couch. He wears sunglasses indoors. He also wears a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie. This outfit looks familiar. But just in case you don’t catch the reference, there’s a Reservoir Dogs poster on the wall. He addresses the camera.

“I got in the business for all the wrong reasons. Figured I’d make a little bit of money and get out…but it’s hard to get out when all that money’s in your fucking face.…I knew I’d get fucked, but it was my time to do the fucking.”

The monologue is painful. It’s as painful as when Madonna made pants sandwich with a guy with a really big dick.

Doug meets a cholo who is as convincing as the one from High Kicks, which is to say not at all. He’s less of a “gang member who terrorizes Hacienda Heights” and more “dude who buys a plaid shirt at a garage sale.” At some point Doug cuts the cholo’s throat, but he does it in the bathtub. There are strobe effects and inserted surgery footage and two gallons of grape juice. I’m always conflicted when filmmakers do kill scenes in the bathroom. It’s clear that they don’t want to make a mess and ruin the rugs, and I appreciate that—after all, no one likes a stained carpet. But how can you truly be an auteur if you’re worrying about the goddamn rugs? Later, there’s a blood-splattering face-punch scene that happens in a room carefully covered in white sheets. One does not want to splatter grape juice all over the Reservoir Dogs poster.

Cue another interstitial title:
“Las Vegas Nevada [sic]”
“Sid’s Story”

Sid wears plaid Bermuda shorts and sandals for men, better known as mandals. He is balding with slicked back hair; he looks like the dirty old man version of James Lipton and/or Rip Torn. Sid’s story happens farther back in time. We learn how he first meets Doug, who is just a young lass hustling on a street corner. Sid asks Doug to work for him and then there’s a deal that goes awry. Sid punches a lady, who is actually a mannequin. Sid is angry. A man who wears mandals has no reason to be angry–he clearly doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks.

Yet another interstitial title:
“Las Vegas Nevada [sic]”
“Louie’s Story”

This story happens later in time. And here we see director/writer/producer/actor trying to do a nonlinear story line—something that only one filmmaker has ever done in the history of film. He is a genius and a film god and a master of dialogue and all movies ever owe everything to him. I’m talking about Quentin Tarantino here.

Louie is at a loud bar, and “I’ve Got the Power” is playing. He says something but it’s hard to understand him because he’s at a loud bar and “I’ve Got the Power” is playing. Then he makes a phone call at the Circle K. For some reason, the second half of Louie’s story is sped up, à la Benny Hill. It is both thoroughly entertaining and incredibly confusing. At some point an exotic hooker with fake bosoms strips for Sid. It’s the lap dance no one asked for and it’s excruciating. But while she’s grinding in a half-drunk state, you will notice the wonderful pen and ink drawing of Jack Nicholson on the wall.

There are two more stories, including one about “Sick Vic.” He doesn’t seem sick, but says he is, so we have to take his word. So on that note, you should know I’m a neurosurgeon. There are many scenes where the characters just ramble on and mumble, sometimes talking over each other. They go on rants and drop F bombs and try to be hard motherfuckers, just like Mr. [Name a color]. There’s even a scene where someone is shot in the stomach and another were a victim is doused in gasoline.

Some of the my favorite gutter trash movies were created by artists who were influenced and inspired by other films: They put their own spin on Star Wars (Droid) or they took a whole genre and added warlocks and chickens (Furious) or they heavily referenced classic films, but then added Wings Hauser (The Art of Dying). These writers and directors didn’t necessarily try to remake the movies that influenced them. Instead they took elements and tropes, but then added a stripper who jumps out of a sarcophagus. You can see the inspiration, but what you can’t see is parody. The problem with The Payback is that we’re made painfully aware that Atkins wanted to make Reservoir Dogs, which is fine, sure, whatever, but the problem is that he didn’t make his own Reservoir Dogs. He didn’t twist and turn the movie into something that can stand on its own; anyone in 1994 with a camcorder could’ve made this movie. The Payback is derivative, uninspired, and perhaps most unfortunately, boring. As much as a ripoff artist he is, there can only be one Tarantino. So why not spend countless hours to make your own movie and not his?