Just deciding to remake Point Blank was a big mistake on Mel Gibson’s part, but he compounded the error in two ways in his 1999 film Payback: attempting to turn it into an ironic black comedy, and casting himself in the lead role. Mel Gibson is a Hollywood star; he is therefore required to play a Hollywood star in every movie he makes. He is likable. He is attractive. His struggles are our struggles. We sympathize with him and want him to succeed. None of those things are true of the man whose character Gibson attempted to usurp, and that is what makes all the difference between Point Blank and its washed-out remake.
Lee Marvin played ugly men. Ugly and mean, the kind of men who’d throw hot coffee in a woman’s face without a thought, before or after, about the consequences. In Point Blank, he plays Walker, a man with one name and no friends. Even his wife is first seen betraying him. Of course, this is traditional noir territory, but Point Blank isn’t a noir film, really. It doesn’t have the fatalism, or the existential spirit, the implied shrug, of noir. It’s a crime movie, a caper film shown in reverse. It comes at the viewer waving its arms and yelling, demanding that its story receive full attention. To watch it is to be assaulted by loud music, gunshots echoing off concrete, screams, bright lights and characters who’d rather punch than talk.
Lee Marvin was the perfect protagonist for Point Blank. Unless he wants a question answered, he doesn’t speak. (There’s a famous scene in which a conversation between Walker and his wife becomes a monologue, because Marvin felt the scene would be stronger if his half of the dialogue were cut. So he simply didn’t speak, and let the actress recite her lines into the air, while he stared off at nothing.) He takes beatings without a groan, kills men by the roomful and leaves without a backward glance. Everything, for him, is bound up in the pursuit of his betrayer, and it’s not even revenge he wants. He only wants what’s owed him.
John Boorman’s direction vacillates between a kind of stoic spareness and, when required, bravura explosions of kinetic style. He seems to be working the same territory explored by Sam Fuller and Don Siegel, attempting to transcend the action film while still more than fulfilling all its requirements. This is particularly evident in a scene where Marvin beats three attackers nearly to death behind the stage in a club. Boorman cuts back and forth between the fight and a singer, whose wails reach a nearly manic pitch as the violence climaxes. The whole sequence takes the viewer beyond being a passive receptor, gripping on a visceral level. By contrast, another scene, in which Walker invades the fortress-like apartment complex housing his enemy, is downplayed; the suspense is minimal, the break-in treated as a relatively simple bit of stage business. The more important thing, for Boorman as for Walker, is the confrontation and its violent conclusion.
Point Blank is a profoundly fatalistic film. It’s saved from total cynicism only by Walker’s character. For all his flaws, his motivations are simple, almost automatic. He’s been robbed, and he wants his money back. The physical revenge he gains is really of no interest to him. When it becomes necessary for him to kill a man in order to gain the attention of someone higher up the criminal ladder, he does so almost resignedly. There’s no rage or bitterness to his violence. He’s utterly pragmatic. There are a few flashback scenes in which he seems to miss his ex-wife, but those feel like bones tossed to viewers to keep them from being utterly alienated by this silent, determined man. In the end, it’s the way Walker does only what he absolutely has to that makes Point Blank such a superior crime film.