Failing Grade

But Resnick has used the loot to repay his employer -- the Outfit (that is to say, the Mob) -- for money he lost through a stupid blunder. Because he has shown the initiative and resourcefulness to make up for his mistake, he escapes the Outfit's wrath and is made a low-level executive in its local operations.

Proceeding with methodical determination, Porter finds his wife, finds Val, and then embarks on a campaign to force the Outfit to return his cut of the stolen cash. This involves confrontations with a series of Outfit bosses, played by William Devane, an unbilled James Coburn, and Kris Kristofferson.

In general, Helgeland pushes the material in a commercial direction, making the light moments lighter and the dark ones darker. He adds a lot of humor, some clever plot elements and some grueling violence that is far more explicit than anything in either the book or the Boorman film. It might be said that he has Elmore Leonardized the material: The influence of 1995's Get Shorty and last year's Out of Sight is clear. (It seems likely that Leonard was probably influenced by Westlake, or vice versa.)

Certainly Gibson's Porter is way different from either Parker or Marvin's Walker. As the story unravels, he becomes more sentimental, reviving a romance with Rosie (Maria Bello), a hooker he used to work for. She gets off the film's single best line, a perfect characterization of Porter: "I think all those stories about you being dead were true. You're just too thickheaded to admit it." Unfortunately, as soon as she utters those words, Porter starts to soften up, displaying the sort of feelings that Parker (and Walker) would never show. Though the emotions may be softer, the violence isn't, and those who are squeamish about such things should be prepared to turn away or cover their eyes during several scenes. It may not help. Helgeland is savvy enough to know that the most effective violence is that which isn't shown. By far the most cringe-worthy moment here merely shows us Porter's reaction to what is being done to him.

For those who come to the film with no baggage, who have never read Westlake or seen Point Blank, Helgeland's film is, despite the occasional gruesomeness, a polished, fast-moving thriller with a '90s style. Gibson negotiates Porter's not-always-plausible changes believably, sometimes evoking memories of his Martin Riggs character in the Lethal Weapon films. Interestingly, although Porter occasionally addresses us in voice-over, suggesting that he is remembering the story, Helgeland doesn't cleave to this point of view.

The supporting cast is uniformly first-rate. Gregg Henry -- one of those guys you've seen in a million bit film roles and bigger parts in TV movies -- should make a big leap forward with this performance. He makes Resnick a totally loathsome villain -- an utter bully and, like most bullies, an even more complete coward. The moment when Resnick realizes that Porter is alive and looking for him is priceless. David Paymer and Lucy Liu are also memorable in far broader roles, but John Glover, who shows up for about two minutes (was his part trimmed?), and Bill Duke are wasted. (Duke is featured in a subplot that could easily have been omitted.)

Helgeland makes a solid debut as director here, finding a new angle through which to view the Parker character and doing so without exhausting the possibilities. Who would have thought that a pulp-paperback original from the early '60s would prove rich enough to bring forth two film adaptations and still leave room for a third?

Opens Feb. 5.
-- Andy Klein

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