I was excited about Payback before it premiered in 1999. I had just started reading the Parker books by Richard Stark and was a fan of Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, and Lucy Liu. I liked the movie fine as it was, but it didn't make as big a splash as I expected, with me, critics, or other moviegoers. In my opinion, the Parker character was just a bit too good, shades of jokey Mel.
I knew going in that Brian Helgeland had been replaced as director, but I didn't know he'd had time to shoot an entire movie that was then passed up by Paramount and Gibson. I also didn't know that the rift between Helgeland, Gibson, and Paramount was as amicable as rifts get. Helgeland wrote Conspiracy Theory, staying on-set for the entire shoot and bonding with Mel and Richard Donner. Gibson spotted Helgeland with a partial script to Payback and gave him his first shot to direct. Payback started as a small movie between friends. Helgeland left the picture after being asked to re-shoot the third act simply because he only knew how to make the movie he envisioned.
Watching Helgeland's cut, I can see why Paramount and Mel made the changes they did. At the same time, I'm glad Helgeland's footage was saved in perfect condition to make this second cut. Indeed, without Gibson's support, we may never have seen it.
In addition to the fast-moving 90-minute movie, there's a commentary by Helgeland and all the behind-the-scenes footage you could want, including recent interviews with a bushy-bearded Mel, Maria Bello, Deborah Kara Unger (Mrs. Porter), Richard Donner, Donald Westlake, and others.