Length: 118 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1, anamorphic (also available in fullscreen format)
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, French 5.1, English Dolby Surround
English Subtitles, English Closed Captioned
Special Features: 2 commentaries, 2 featurettes, deleted / extended scenes, alternate ending
No S.R.P. Minimum Advertised Price: $19.95
John Woo can make stuff blow up real good. He’s great at directing action sequences, but I’ve never been a big fan of his work. His films are great assemblages of interesting set pieces, camera work and action - but, on the whole, they are often devoid of soul.
Paycheck is loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story. Woo manages to develop the action sequences with his usual competence, but leaves the plot to languish on the vine - never really developing the characters beyond their need to be there in order to advance the action. The film is mildly enjoyable while it unfolds in front of you, but it is ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable.
So, here’s the basic plot: Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is an engineer who hires himself out to unscrupulous employers to reverse-engineer products developed by other companies. In order to maintain plausible deniability, after two months developing a project, his memory of the past two months is erased. For this work, he is paid very well.
He is hired by an old friend and the wealthy head of Allcom (Aaron Eckhart) to do a 3 year job, after which, his memory will be erased again. He accepts the job, only knowing that it involves optics. The payoff is a paycheck of over 90 million dollars.
Before he knows it, Jennings wakes up - the job is finished, his memory wiped. He goes to the bank to check on his portfolio and finds that he relinquished his shares before his memory wipe. He is left only with an envelope full of items that mean nothing to him, which he sent to himself. He also has no memory of the relationship that developed between him and Rachel Porter (who he met shortly before he took the job at Allcom).
After some intruders in his home attempt to kill him, Jennings contacts his only true friend, Shorty (Paul Giamatti) for help.
Some spoilers ahead...
Jennings figures out that the strange items in the envelope all play key roles in events, if used at the proper time. It’s as if he sent himself these items, having seen the future, so that he could use them to help escape from the cronies from Allcom, who are still out to kill him. Like assembling parts of a jigsaw puzzle, Jennings figures out that he sent himself a can of hairspray and a lighter, for instance, so that he could make a flame-thrower to fight off an assassin. Yeah, right.
It seems that Jennings was hired to make a device that could see around the curvature of the universe, ultimately to see the earth of the future. Huh?
This prediction device threatens the entire world, and so Jennings, with the help of his girlfriend Rachel (who he can’t remember) must sneak back in to the high security labs at Allcom to destroy the device before it causes World War III.
Woo uses pretty sets, and cool special effects - but more for the “wow” effect than for their appropriateness in the film. He rips off the 3d holographic computer with gestural interface which we saw in Spielberg’s Minority Report, but it seems out of place in the present day / near future setting of Paycheck.
I find it annoying when key moments are telegraphed in advance - all too common in this kind of action flick. For instance, it is established early on that Jennings practices fighting with a quarterstaff. Hmmm... might he use this in the climactic fight scene? There are a few other instances when this sort of thing happens.
And what’s with all the fog in the corridors at Allcom? Conveniently, it has a purpose in the film, though its presence makes little sense in practice.
If you want to see an “amnesiac-on-the-run” film, I can recommend The Bourne Identity with Affleck’s friend Matt Damon. Better still, find a copy of Mirage with Gregory Peck and Walter Matthau (1965) - one of my favorite films from the 60’s. Either of these is more satisfying than Paycheck.
This transfer is solid, with just a few minor quibbles. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is sharp, with good detail. The picture is bright and high in contrast. Black levels are strong, and there is excellent detail in the shadows. The colors are a bit on the warm side, and midtones in the skintones seems a bit squashed at times. Saturation is strong. There is occasional flaring of bright whites, by design. The print exhibits occasional black dust spots - some quite noticeable. I found this surprising for a new print. There are no overt or distracting signs of edge enhancement or compression artifacts.
A bit unusual for a John Woo film, the first act is mostly dialog driven. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track gives good frequency response, here. Dialog is always clean, clear and intelligible. The second act kicks things up a notch with a motorcycle chase. Good directional effects can be heard, here. It is the third act where the sound starts to sizzle, showing off great frequency response, stereo and surround effects and low frequency effects. It’s a solid soundtrack, lending an immersive experience for the climax of the film.
Special Features are not anamorphically enhanced.
Commentary by director John Woo
Woo confesses to having not read any P.K. Dick books, not being a “sci-fi” director (or fan), and to removing 80% of the sci-fi from this film - making it his own way.
Wow... three strikes and you're out, in the first 3 minutes of the commentary. I suppose that’s a bit unfair. Directors and writers should work in the genre and style where they are conformable - but perhaps Woo wasn’t the best choice to direct this project, necessitating a change in the project to fit his comfort zone.
Woo talks about changing the time period to present day, yet he also talks about the decision to use the holographic gestural computer (as seen in Minority Report) just as an interesting way to introduce the film. Woo: “I just shot Ben Affleck doing some action, and they put all those graphic images afterward.” He makes it well known that he has little knowledge of effects work, and the lack of leadership in this area shows.
Woo mentions the fact that the first person under consideration for the role of Jennings was Matt Damon. Aside from being busy on another project, Damon didn’t want to play another role so similar to that in The Bourne Identity, so Damon recommended Affleck for the part.
Woo talks mostly of techniques used to create suspense (talking about his love for Hitchcock films), with some focus on the nuts and bolts of creating the feeling of suspense through camera moves and props. Differing from Hitchcock, however, is Woo’s desire to change directions on the fly, following his instincts on the set (whereas Hitchcock is renowned to have so meticulously storyboarded his scenes ahead of time - his films could almost make themselves).
I think if I had found the film more interesting to start with, I could have found Woo’s commentary of interest. He is animated and informative throughout - during the portions of the commentary that I sampled.
Commentary by Screenwriter Dean Georgaris
Georgaris describes how the script evolved after John Woo came on to direct. While the basic story remains the same, more physical and visual elements were added in rewrites before and during shooting. This is a competent, if not engrossing, writer commentary.
Paycheck: Designing the Future (18:13)
A by-the-numbers featurette... about half of which is interviews with actors and director about the characters and story. The other half deals with the near-futuristic set design of the film, which apparently attempts to represent a world of about 5 years from now.
Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck (16:46)
This includes discussion of the motorcycle chase, subway sequence and the hydroponic garden from pre-planning to production, with comments from director, cast and crew.
Six Deleted / Extended Scenes
Offered up with a “Play All” feature, these scenes total less than ten and a half minutes in length. Two of the scenes actually offer up some interesting and relevant exposition - one between Eckhart and Thurman, and one between Eckhart and Affleck. I imagine these two scenes were deleted for pacing reasons, while the rest were very brief throwaway scenes.
This is about two minutes long, and alters the post-climax portion of the film. Nothing of interest, here.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
The Perfect Score
Against the Ropes
It is probably obvious that I wasn’t impressed with this film (and that I’m generally not impressed with John Woo’s style). Even if you do like Woo’s work, this film is a bit different - a bit more mainstream - than much of his other work. This may be a disappointment even for Woo fans.
In my view, this film continues Paramount’s recent track record of so-so action / sci-fi films. The film itself is of similar quality as The Core and Timeline. It passes a couple of hours with a stream of action on the screen, but has little to offer the sci-fi fan.
Paramount gives us a good transfer, with good sound quality, of a film which may be better left unseen. Check it out if you’re a John Woo fan. Avoid it if you’re interested in a smart treatment of a P.K. Dick sci-fi story.