Sadly, Judge Bill Gibron's salary couldn't cover his critical disappointment with this sci-fi mess.
Remember the future.
At one time, John Woo was a titan just waiting to be crowned. His output as a Hong Kong auteur was uncompromising, a collection of too cool for school crime and historic thrillers evoking a love of violence, duty, loyalty, and personal sacrifice. While he had been in the business since the late '60s, helming old school classics like Countdown to Kung Fu and Last Hurrah of Chivalry, it wasn't until 1989's The Killer that he caught the attention of a world audience. Soon, efforts like A Better Tomorrow and Hard-Boiled were arguing for a filmmaker light years ahead of other action movie mavericks.
Yet as with most foreign icons, a trip to the US and the Hollywood studio system proved inconsistent. Hard Target was OK, while Broken Arrow relied on star power to propel itself past the implausibilities. Face/Off was fantastic, while both Mission: Impossible II and Windwalkers argued for someone out of touch with his muse. Nowhere was this more clear than in 2003's Paycheck. It was the movie that literally killed his career in Tinsel Town and sent him back to China. One look at the end result and you'll instantly understand why.
Facts of the Case
Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck, Changing Lanes) is famous for being able to "reverse engineer" competitors' complicated high tech products. He is hired by his best friend James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) to mimic a clandestine government device. The potential payday is eight figures. The sole risk—having three years of his memory electronically erased so that the project remains top secret. It's not a big deal since Michael has had his brain "wiped" before. His assistant Shorty (Paul Giamatti, Shoot 'Em Up) is an expert at getting rid of pesky, unwanted recollections.
With the project complete, Michael heads over to collect his paycheck. He soon learns that he rejected all reimbursement, and instead sent himself an envelope containing 20 unrelated items. Without warning, the FBI wants to question him in the death of a former Defense Department scientist. Then Rethrick comes after him, afraid he might 'remember' the job. His only hope is Dr. Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction), a biologist who was his fiancé during the experiment. Perhaps she can help him remember. The fate of the entire world apparently hangs in the balance.
Paycheck is the perfect "on paper" film. On paper, the hiring of John Woo to handle a super slick sci-fi action film seemed like a no brainer. After all, he helmed the John Travolta/Nicholas Cage effort Face/Off to maximum operatic effect, and his slo-mo style of extended dramatization would suit such material perfectly. On paper, the casting of Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, and Paul Giamatti was, again, win-win. They were coming off Daredevil, Kill Bill, The Core, and American Splendor, respectively. And while the hiring of novice screenwriter Dean Georgaris offered its own potential pitfalls, the source material was Philip K. Dick, the speculative fiction master who provided the foundation of Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. So aside from a crappy title, Paycheck had lots of potential. Sure, the 20 unconnected items in an envelope premise could possibly try audience attention spans, but the entire production was marked by such a wealth of workable possibilities.
So where did it all fall apart? Where did the clear cut planning and preparation turn into cinematic turds the size of elephant droppings? Apparently, what looks good "on paper" has only the slightest chance of succeeding in Hollywood's hackwork realm of artistic indifference. Woo, almost always fascinating as a filmmaker, is foiled by a Tinsel Town tendency toward unimpressive bombast. Our cast careens along gracelessly, occasionally stumbling over scenes that should click like clockwork. The script itself has so many massive plotholes that, in order to believe in its logic, you have to reject centuries of Socratic reasoning and take up shop among radical fundamentalists. And then there's the source. Sure, Dick is a splendid read, the kind of literary mind that can make even the most outlandish idea ring with authenticity. But clearly the man had issues with memory. It features prominently in almost every cinematic adaptation of his work, and causes Paycheck to seem both redundant, and on more than one occasion, ridiculous.
This is a hard film to support; a sloppy uninteresting mess that occasionally breaks out into moments of memorable adventure. When Affleck is deconstructing the effect of the device he made, the glimpses into the future retain their potential power. Similarly, when his character's engineering copycat builds a holographic computer monitor, the reveal is handled with anticipatory aplomb. But that's about it. For every science geek given, we are treated to shots of cars crashing down the highway, a motorcycle making its way through traffic like a Jackass inspired BMX rider is at the controls. Things get worse when Woo resets his chase in a factory yard. Between races through pipes, trips into tunnels, and the various construction logistics used in defense, the action becomes unbelievable, and then plain awkward. There's never a sense of being at the edge of your seat. Instead, you often find yourself reclining back in your chair, getting comfortable for the boredom inspired nap to come.
This is the very definition of an empty headed genre outing, a movie which utilizes the various trappings of the categories it is trading in (action, sci-fi, future shock) to avoid being labeled as merely dull. Take away the memory eradication and techno-speak mumbo jumbo and you'd have the typical corporate espionage nonsense. Evil companies are nothing new, and there is little Eckhart or his right hand assassin Colm Feore can do (heck, the latter's paid killer can't even shoot straight half the time) to elevate their menace. Similarly, the additional distraction of the FBI makes the entire premise suspect. After all, if they know that Affleck is a paid product mimic, and that he was hired by a company to make a prototype of a Defense Department guy's time machine (or something like that), would they really go through the rigmarole of interrogating him? They know most of the answers before hand, apparently. It's all part of Paycheck's inherent issues. This is a movie that tries to look and sound great. It can only manages a microscopic amount of both.
The arrival of this title on Blu-ray is kind of a shock, especially when you consider what a box office dud it was back in 2003. Six years have not improved the product, and putting it out on the high end standard for home video doesn't help matters much either. The 1080p AVC codec in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio transfer does look great, the crisp cleanness of Woo's pristine post-modern metropolis beaming across the format. There are no real flaws to consider, and the amount of detail is good, if not great. There is a scene where a crossword puzzle is used as a clue, and one expects to be able to read the print present. Instead, the words are less than clear. Otherwise, this is a fine high definition image. Similarly, the True HD 5.1 mix is all ballistics and bombast. There is a lot of gunplay in this movie, as well as the last minute detonation of cars and laboratories. All are handled with channel challenging explosiveness, the speakers literally rocking your in house set-up. For those outside North America, there are also French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, as well as subtitles for each language (along with Portuguese and English SDH).
As for added content, the Blu-ray mimics the material offered on the original DVD version of the film released back in 2004. The commentary tracks are the same (including one featuring Woo and another giving Georgaris a chance to defend himself), as is the 18 minute making-of ("Paycheck—Designing the Future") and the 16 minute look at how the action was choreographed ("Tempting Fate—The Stunts of Paycheck"). Add in a few unnecessary deleted/extended scenes and you've got a decent, if rather derivative set of extras. Of the bonuses present, the two alternate narrative tracks are the best. They provide the clearest indication of where this adaptation began, and where it ended up.
It's really sad what happened to Woo once Paycheck tanked at the box office. He produced some projects for TV and videogames, but couldn't land another high profile Hollywood job. He eventually returned to China, hoping to restart his career with a historical epic entitled Red Cliffs. Advanced word has the troubled production producing the kind of awe-inspired raves that his original oeuvre, pre-Tinsel Town, would garner. Divided over two massive parts and preparing to make its debut sometime this year, this story of Ancient Asia may just be the director's ticket back into cinephile's good graces. Clearly, the entire Paycheck experience left a bad taste in everyone's mouth—the least of which being the demographic supposedly geared toward this kind of genre exercise. John Woo will always be an amazing auteur who let the lure of mainstream success sidetrack him. And Paycheck will always be the shining example of a cinema by committee calamity.
Guilty. Not good as action, science fiction, or
bored-with-nothing-to-do-on-Saturday-night entertainment alternative.
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