Feb 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

He’s tough. He’s mean. He’s a killing machine. He wants one thing: $70,000, his cut from the heist he’s pulled with his buddy, Val (Gregg Henry). He moves in a world of mathematically challenged thugs — 70,000, goddamnit, not 130,000! — and that makes things a tad difficult.

He never bluffs. When shot, he bleeds buckets of blood and throws intense, metallic-blue glances into the soft eye of the camera. The camera loves his face. Lots of close-ups.

The only woman for him is a hooker with a heart of gold by the name of Rosie (Maria Bello). His wife (Deborah Kara Unger), the one who shot him, the one who took off with Val, is dead. Poetic justice. Now he can make an honest woman of Rosie: “If she stops hookin’, I stop shootin’,” he says.

His name is Porter (Mel Gibson) and he’s a man on a mission. Give him his money or bite the dust. “Porter takes the gloves off from the get-go,” says Gibson. “He’ll roll with whatever they throw at him. He might be a thief, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a man completely without honor. He has a perverse sense of justice.”

Porter’s “perverse sense of justice” leaves behind an impressive body count. But for all the delightful voice-overs (Mike Hammer meets Quentin Tarantino), the perfectly choreographed punches and the comic relief provided by Val’s kinky partner, Pearl (Lucy Liu), director Brian Helgeland’s Payback is surprisingly empty. Not only devoid of feeling: That we could understand, for Porter is “an emotional cripple,” a lone gunman trapped in a gray, stone city with rusted alleys and rough neighborhoods. But empty as in detached, fragmented, uncaring.

Though slick and crafty, Mel Gibson’s stylized performance isolates the character both from the world within the film and from the world without. As Porter wins or loses; as he stumbles, falls, retrieves composure, cries in pain or utters truths of his own making, we watch him — always from a distance, always removed from the heart of the story — uncaring, slightly amused, empty.