January 5, 2003
Starring: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall, Peter Friedman, Kathryn Morris, Ivana Milicevic, Christopher Kennedy, Fulvio Cecere, John Cassini, Callum Keith Rennie, Michelle Harrison, ,
Phillip K. Dick just doesn’t get any respect from Hollywood. With the exception of Blade Runner (1982), film producers and writers have butchered his fiction, rendering them unrecognizable by the time they hit the big screen. “We Can You Remember it For You Wholesale” was transformed into an action-packed rollercoaster ride called Total Recall (1990) and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. Recently, Minority Report (2002) was a step in the right direction but as the saying goes, two step forwards, one step back. That step back would be John Woo’s Paycheck (2003).
Michael Jennings (Affleck) is a computer engineer who takes existing technology and improves on it. The projects he works on are so top secret that his memory of working on them is erased from his brain upon completion for a hefty paycheck. It is the ultimate preventive measure against industrial espionage. After all, how can someone steal or reveal your company’s secrets if they have no memory of it?
When his old school friend, Jimmy (Eckhart), sets Michael up with a new assignment he’s vague on the specifics (“It involves optics.”) but promises a big payday in the eight figure range. In exchange, Michael will have two to three years of his life erased—a time range that he’s never attempted before. Naturally, he can’t resist the lure of the money and goes for it.
Michael does the job, three years pass and he’s $92 million richer for the experience. Only, he’s not. When he goes to take some money out he finds that a few days earlier he forfeited all of his earnings and left himself with an envelope filled with random objects that he doesn’t recognize. During those three years he also married a pretty scientist, Dr. Rachel Porter (Thurman). Pretty soon the FBI is after him as is the company he worked for all because of whatever he helped create those three years he no longer remembers.
Watching Paycheck it’s sad to see how far John Woo’s career has declined since he left Hong Kong. With the exception of Face/Off (1997), all of his Hollywood films have been marred by weak scripts and countless rehashes of his Hong Kong style that put him on the map in the first place. Sadly, Paycheck is no different. The film contains his trademark slick camerawork as he tries hard to instill the film with some style to distract the audience from the bland screenplay. Woo even trots out his old visual mainstays, like the Mexican stand-off and the white dove imagery (that appears for no logical reason except as if to say well, this is a John Woo film.). Alas, he doesn’t use his most well-known motif: the two-gun action hero.
Ben Affleck is fine as Michael Jennings but has really nothing to work with and so plays it safe, which was probably a wise move after the failure of Gigli (2003). Aaron Eckhart seems to be slumming between Neil LaBute films and Uma Thurman, still looking buff from her workout on Kill Bill (2003), is given little to do until the end of the film. However, Paul Giamatti is his usual excellent self. Paycheck only comes to life whenever he’s on screen (which, unfortunately, isn’t often enough). He gives his lines his own unique reading (much in the same way Christopher Walken does) and this makes him interesting to watch.
Director John Woo contributes an audio commentary. He explains that the movie was originally a more futuristic bit of sci-fi. He wasn’t interested in that kind of film and decided to set it closer to the near future like he did with Face/Off. Woo confesses to being a romantic and likes to include elements of the romance genre in all of his films in an attempt to humanize the characters. This is an okay track but only an essential listen if you’re a die-hard Woo fan.
The film’s screenwriter, Dean Georgaris, also contributes his own audio commentary. He talks about the many changes to the film over various drafts. When John Woo came aboard, he made the film much more visual, starting with the opening credits. Interestingly, he admits that actors Paul Giamatti and Ben Affleck ended up adlibbing many of their scenes together.
“Paycheck: Designing the Future” is an 18-minute featurette that examines the film’s slick looking production design. Some of Woo’s comments are repeated in his audio commentary but he does talk about how he wanted to make an Alfred Hitchcock style thriller a la North by Northwest (1959) where an average guy is thrown into extraordinary circumstances.
“Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck” examines many of the film’s elaborate action sequences, including the obligatory Woo motorcycle chase. The featurette shows how the stunt was photographed from various angles and versions.
There are six deleted or extended scenes that clock in at ten minutes. One of them provides some interesting backstory to Michael and his family that provides more motivation for what does later on.
Finally, there is an alternate ending that tweaks the film’s conclusion. The focus is more on Michael and Rachel with an emphasis on romance and not the more amusing ending that eventually made the final cut.
Paycheck is not a terrible film but it isn’t that good either. It sits somewhere in the middle of the road as a tame, mainstream variation on Memento (2000) with a dash of Hitchcock. The DVD contains a crystal clear print of the film and a nice collection of extras; it’s just a shame that the film wasn’t better.