It had been a good day for Kathryn Stanfill (Mary Tyler Moore) at her restaurant until she went to leave and she saw a man in a car watching the place. After calling the police three officers show up including Sgt. Brian Kaleen (Fredric Lehne) who drag the man from his car and beat him senseless leading to Kathryn calling the police again to report what she has witnessed. After Jack Patkanis (Edward Asner) of internal affairs talks Kathryn in to testifying at a hearing against Kaleen as he has history things turn bad. Suspended for 6 months Kaleen isn't going to let things lie and starts a campaign of terror against Stanfill and her family, especially her son Adam (Adam Scott) who he arranges to be arrested for murder.
I don't remember it mentioning it at the start of "Payback" but this is one of those true story movies and one which sadly misses out on a real opportunity to scare the crap out of the audience. Now "Payback" is simple and it all comes down to Sgt. Kaleen trying to make the life of Kathryn Stanfill a real nightmare through various tactics. We see how she is flagged down by other cops who hold her at gunpoint over accusations of stealing her own car, her husband has accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour brought up against him at the college where he is a professor and along with other things her son is charged with murder. The thing is that all this is done in a typical TV movie drama fashion and so the horror of the intimidation is never really played upon.
Now in fairness "Payback" is a product of its era and whilst we have a dirty cop it is one of those TV movies which are as much about who is cast as in the characters. As such for a certain generation the sight of Mary Tyler Moore and Edward Asner on screen together will be a delight. There will also be those who enjoy seeing a young Adam Scott appearing in a TV movie as Mary Tyler Moore's son. But the acting and the characters are ordinary and the sort which 24 hours after watching this you will have forgotten about.
The biggest problem which "Payback" has and is tied in with the era this movie was made is that the ending ends up uncomfortably contrived in an overly everything needs to be worked out sort of way. Some would say the ending is the nail in coffin which makes "Payback" a work of fiction rather than a true story movie although for me it always felt more fictional than real life.
What this all boils down to is that "Payback" is just a typical late 90s TV movie which goes for drama rather than gritty realism. Yes it is entertaining but for me the potential for delving in to the real horror of the situation is lost in favour of making it more friendly for those who watch because it stars Mary Tyler Moore and Edward Asner.