Written by Alexander Jacobs and David & Rafe Newhouse
Based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake (as Richard Stark)
Directed by John Boorman
Haven't I already seen this movie?
Well, actually, no. While both the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback and Point Blank were both based on the same novel by Donald E. Westlake, they are substantially different films. Payback (which I saw upon its theatrical release and have seen numerous times on cable since then) had the tagline "Get Ready to Root For the Bad Guy," and that was basically the point of the film: look at what a naughty boy Mel Gibson can be, and watch him kick the ass of some even worse guys! (The fact that Mel Gibson later turned out to be a naughty boy of a much less cinematic type is a delicious irony but not really relevant here.) The version from three decades earlier, however, much less obviously a thrill ride (although it has some thrillerish aspects), focusing much more clearly on its characters and is indeed a philosophical work on some level.
So let's forget Mel Gibson for the moment, shall we? I enjoy Helgeland's film just fine and it's probably impossible for any viewer of Point Blank not to be haunted by echoes of the later film, but we'll just take in stride the fact that certain elements carry over between both films and move on.
Point Blank starts with a set piece that will set the tone for the rest of the film. Through a series of jump cuts, a professional thief named Walker (Lee Marvin) is recruited by a buddy (Lee Vernon) to make an elaborate heist of a money drop on Alcatraz island. But Walker is doublecrossed by his buddy (and Walker's wife, played by Sharon Acker) and is left for dead in one of the cells on the defunct prison island. Walker wakes up, wonders at the fact that he has no bullet wound, and vows revenge. Then the credits roll, for the entire setup has been established in about three minutes of screen time, mostly using time-crunching cutaways that were very likely inspiration for most of Tarantino's early work.
The fact that Walker awakes and finds himself without injury is an element of the film that lends itself to many questions. Is what we are seeing "real?" Is it all just the revenge fantasy of a man dying of blood loss in a cold prison cell? Is Walker's journey that of a vengeful spirit? Some of the things that Walker will do during the ninety minutes of Point Blank seem beyond the ability of a normal human, but the film doesn't really confront these questions head-on, preferring instead to just focus on the details of the revenge. Attentive viewers will find much to head-scratch over, but director John Boorman doesn't rely on such questions to move the narrative along. It's there for the interested, but the film is more interested in pyrotechnics than metaphysics.
Having escaped from Alcatraz island (the film shows this in a simple jump-cut), Walker is approached by a mysterious man who seems to be from some official agency, offering assistance in tracking down those who wronged him. Walker shrugs off the help, but later on will use the resources of his new partner in tracking down his money. In the process, Walker will go head-to-head with "The Organization," a criminal syndicate run more like a corporation than the gang of thugs it is, eventually killing his way up the food chain to get his money back. This takes him through a wide variety of locations in 1960s Southern California, including a hip jazz club, a heavily-guarded high-rise, and a mansion that might as well be owned by Hugh Hefner (but is actually owned by Caroll O'Connor, who would later go on to play Archie Bunker and is one of the delights of the last third of the film). Walker will also begin a romantic (er, yeah, that's it, romantic) entanglement with his now-deceased wife's sister Chris, played ably by Angie Dickinson.
I mentioned that Point Blank gets a little philosophical at times. It's subtle, but Walker here is haunted by his memories of what he has done during the process of his revenge. He seems to be trying to come to terms with who he is, with what kind of person he should be, and it's possible that his relationship with Chris is one thing that helps him to find his humanity. Unlike in the '99 remake, the protagonist here has doubts about the morality of his actions, and while his obsession in getting his money back leads him to do awful things, we get the sense that this doesn't define him in the way that Gibson's obsession defined his character.
In the end, this film is an intelligent thriller with some great sequences and good performances that has aged well, but there's not a lot of meat on the bones. Boorman has directed a stylish film that whisks by at 92 minutes, and while it is entertaining throughout, it doesn't stick around in my mind very well. It's a better film than the later remake, but in some ways it's a bit less entertaining. Both films are worthy (and if you're only going to see one I'd recommend this one) but neither is cinematic perfection. Of interest mostly to those who are fans of pre-blockbuster genre pictures.