½*/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Michael C. Hall
screenplay by Dean Georgaris, based on the short story by Philip K. Dick
directed by John Woo
by Walter Chaw At the end of John Woo's latest Hollywood misstep, Ben Affleck, as brilliant "reverse engineer" Michael Jennings, hefts two bags of manure on his back and stumbles around with them for a while, effectively defusing anything cogent I could say about Paycheck. It is worth wondering, however, why people like Affleck and Keanu Reeves are so attractive in science-fiction premises (Reeves even had a turn with the memory-loss high-tech agent thing in Johnny Mnemonic)--probably something to do with the idea of robots and minds wiped clean. The problem with Paycheck isn't really that it's not well thought-out or that it's possibly the first Woo action film to be genuinely boring from start to finish, but that Woo seems to have replaced his joy of genre (and genius within the medium) with a scrabbling desperation to manufacture what used to come naturally.
Hired by Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) for a three-year mission to make a machine that can see into the future, Jennings has those three years erased from his gray matter at the end of his term, only to discover that he's forfeited his paycheck and replaced it with a manila envelope containing twenty trinkets--each an item that will aid him on some mysterious quest. Rethrick is helped "on the outside" by a comic relief sidekick (Paul Giamatti) and a girlfriend (Uma Thurman), neither of whom know why Jennings didn't just do what he had to do before he got his memory wiped or, better yet, why he didn't just write himself a note somewhere so he wouldn't have to waste a couple hours of our lives figuring things out.
Though the premise, taken from a Philip K. Dick short story, is nifty in a Memento sort of way, the problem remains that once Jennings changes the first thing in his possible future, the remaining nineteen items would most likely be useless. The rudiments of how the machine works (it seems to be person-specific) is conveniently muddy, while Thurman's character infuriates by constantly referring to herself as a "biologist" when it seems fairly clear that she's a botanist. Affleck is working hard to become the most boring mammal in the kingdom (during one five-minute stretch in the middle with Affleck offstage, I kid you not, I forgot that he was in the picture) and Thurman, combining her Poison Ivy character from Batman & Robin with Sean Connery's Weatherman character from her The Avengers (I don't understand it, either), essentially mails it in from her hiatus between Kill Bill and breaking up with Ethan Hawke.
Paycheck is Woo ripping off the best of Woo: all his standard signatures (doves, slow-motion, long dissolves, meticulous matching shots, Mexican stand-offs, sliding-while-shooting, starfucking), plus stuff about switching faces (Face/Off), bird cages with hidden compartments (Hard-Boiled), motorcycle chases (Hard Target), and Lazy Susan meet-cutes (A Better Tomorrow II, Mission: Impossible II). When his own well runs a little dry, he lifts a mirror/steam reveal from Dario Argento, the kiss of truth from Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the suitcase from Repo Man. (Or Kiss Me Deadly, or Pulp Fiction.) The man who single-handedly brought an entire film industry to prominence with the heroic bloodshed genre (which he also single-handedly engineered) has officially joined Jackie Chan among Hong Kong legends who have sold their souls to be second-wheels and hired hands in American films. Paycheck is bad by itself, but immeasurably worse for anyone who used to revere, and for good reason, Woo as something of a national treasure. And although the picture by itself is only as terrible and forgettable as any number of mainstream Woo knock-offs (we see about six a year--Woo is nothing if not influential), that it's done by Woo, deep in decline and obviously desperate, lends the experience a patina of inexpressible loss and sadness. Originally published: December 25, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Paramount devotes a fair number of extras to their DVD release of Paycheck; meanwhile, superior titles issued concurrently by the Mountain like The Tin Star languish without so much as a trailer. While Paramount's new tiered pricing relieves a little of that sting (The Tin Star sets you back $15 less than Paycheck), once these packages start getting recycled on subsequent video formats, the decision to supplement a dud like Paycheck just because it's new is going to give way to a misrepresentation of the studio's principles.
Still, the disc's tech creds are exemplary: Paycheck's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sports brilliant colours and razor-sharp contrast that together lend the image a fittingly futuristic sheen.* The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio isn't as immediately impressive, but the only sequences remotely worth repeating, such as the motorcycle chase, deliver the goods, even if the LFE channel underperforms the whole time; through no fault of the mastering is this John Woo's tamest American mix since that of Hard Target. Soundtrack alternatives include a French dub and a pair of commentaries, the first from Woo, the second from screenwriter Dean Georgaris. Woo expands his interview soundbites from elsewhere on the platter to feature-length while Georgaris--unveiling a wealth of insecurity, perhaps--embarks on the impossible task of justifying Paycheck's plot and character motivations. In other words, both yakkers are redundant at best and torturous at worst.
Supplements include "Paycheck: Designing the Future", an 18-minute making-of featurette that turns its attention at almost exactly the halfway mark to William Sandell's production design. Woo, who wanted to make a neo-Hitchcock (who doesn't?), here credits Affleck with modelling his character's wardrobe after Cary Grant's in North by Northwest and admits that he's "never had any desire to make a sci-fi movie." It shows, though in a separate talking head, producer Terence Chang is quick to point out that Woo's superior Face/Off falls under the category of SF. Clearly influenced by extensive exposure to Quentin Tarantino, Uma Thurman describes her initial viewing of Woo's The Killer in such endearingly geeky terms ("It was the first of his films I watched projected!") that one realizes the reason he has a crush on Ms. Thurman now is not the same reason he had one on her circa Dangerous Liaisons.
Another featurette, "Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck" (17 mins.), narrows its focus to the set-pieces, each of which was choreographed by motorcycle aficionado Greg Smrz (X2, Blade II). Peppered with B-roll, the piece, in addition to legitimizing Woo's claim that he used very little CGI, finds a post-Kill Bill Thurman amusingly declaring herself "an amateur stunt man (italics ours)." Six deleted or extended scenes (with only a bit that anticipates the shenanigans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind worthy of note), a ludicrously undercooked "alternate ending" (2 mins.), and trailers for Timeline, The Perfect Score, Against the Ropes, and the recently postponed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow round out the platter. Originally published: May 19, 2004.