Review Date: May 23, 2009
“Michael Jennings is not a super agent, he's an engineer!”
The Show - out of
The short stories of Phillip K. Dick, a self described “fictionalizing philosopher” have been fertile ground for Hollywood to explore. Of the over 121 short stories that he penned (in addition to numerous novels), nine have been adapted into features of varying success. His visionary imagination delivered mesmerizing tales of dystopian futures, corporate conglomerates serving as governments and fascinating theories of existence, sentience and fate. His science-fiction tales are riveting, even when the adaptation is riddled with screenplay shortcuts and dumbing-down shortfalls.
So, let me get this out of the way up front, Paycheck is not a good movie. It is in the lower tier of Dick adaptations (along with films like Next and Screamers) but it isn’t a terrible movie. It simply disappoints; failing to truly grasp the rich commentary on ‘monopolistic’ corporations with ethics run awry and the enthralling ideas central in many of his tales.
Ben Affleck stars as Michael Jennings, the poor soul who gives up three years of his life for what he was promised would be multi-million dollar payout, only to wake up with no memory of his three years reverse engineering something top secret (as he agreed to) with no money and a bevy of grief from corporate goons, under the direction of Jenning’s once friend Rethrick (played with some joy by Aaron Eckhart) and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents alike. On the run with only an envelope of random items that he apparently sent himself (which provide incredibly useful to him) and the help of his good friend, Shorty (Paul Giamatti)and a scientist he met on his assignment, Rachel (Uma Thurman).
As you might expect from a plot inspired by the legendary sci-fi writer Phillip whose mind gave us the phenomenal Blade Runner, the explosive Total Recall and the excellence of Minority Report, Paycheck has at its core a neat science-fiction concept that rolls nicely into exciting sequences that should require the audience to decipher a little to truly enjoy. But by trading cerebral and philosophical time for pyrotechnics and Director John Woo’s preoccupation with his actors stances and glances, Paycheck looks and feels more like standard action fare with a sci-fi twist thrown in the mix. It neither enjoys nor employs its sci-fi conceit enough to feed the brain as the bullets whiz about the scenes.
Another of Paycheck’s missteps is an uninspired production design, hampered by what must have been a decision to set the events of the film in an indeterminate year (probably 2004) but asks us to accept remarkable things with the specific technology required for the plot. It robs the film of a visual identity that matches what we are being asked to accept and thus, the look of the film uninspired, flat and unremarkable. I find myself comparing this film to Minority Report, both films containing similar elements of predicted, witnessed futures and the ability to veer from the certainty of what was seen; but Spielberg’s riveting, intelligent thriller wrapped us in a distinct and artistically drawn world where such things did not seem to implausible or gimmicky.
When you boil it down, Paycheck is also woefully miscast – not that the actors are poor, and not entirely that they could not have inhabited these roles successfully – but as used here, with this lackluster script by Dean Georgaris and direction provided by Woo (with his distinct style), nothing quite works. Affleck is affable, but isn’t able to pull off the action hero in this setting. Uma Thurman as Rachel is both lackadaisical and melodramatic in equal measure – clearly ill-fitting in this environment. Paul Giamatti, still playing the comic relief (similar to his turn in The Negotiator) is wasted. And having seen what he can accomplish since this film (Sideways, John Adams,) is awkward here. Perhaps the best casting is that of Eckhart who fills the evil corporate figure easily. Colm Feore as his number one henchman manages to strap on the boots quite nicely well here as well.
Admittedly, I enjoyed this film more today than when I first watched it back in 2004, but only because my expectations were more adequately set. Paycheck is still a poor man’s intelligent science-fiction tale and only an average action flick. I seriously miss the John Woo that gave the world Hardboiled and The Killer - That man needs to return.
Paycheck, appearing for the first time on Blu-Ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35: in 1080p High Definition (AVC MPEG-4) is, in a word, superb. This is a brilliant looking image. The colors leap off the screen. Details are aplenty in every frame, especially close-ups of faces where excellent clarity can be seen of actor’s skin. Flesh tones are natural, if on the bluer end of the spectrum (by design) along with a crisp palette of colors. The image has not been abused by excess digital noise reduction and looks, for the greater majority of its running time, just as it should. Great job on the transfer, Paramount!
Whoa – Paramount Pictures has really put a lot of power in this English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD surround sound. This is “knock your socks off” excellent stuff. The audio is truly immersive, with a lot of activity in the surrounds and fine sonic details during the crash and crunch of Woo’s familiar style during chase and fight scenes. John Powell’s unusually average score (he has been one of Hollywood’s best for the past few years) has great clarity throughout the speakers. The levels all seem just right to my ears – you won’t be disappointed.
Commentary by Director John Woo – Woo commentaries aren’t always the easiest to follow but he always seems to have fun talking about his movies – and this one is at least worth one listen. This commentary, along with all of the other special features available on this disc, have been ported over from the previous DVD release.
Commentary by Screenwriter Dean Georgaris – Dean provides quite a detailed commentary, fairly enthusiastic at times – and is consistent throughout.
Paycheck: Designing The Future - (18:15) – The director and cast discuss the film, it’s influences during this ‘making of’ featurette.
Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck - (16:48) – A look at the many stunts required throughout the film – including storyboarding the sequences. We get a great look at the rather good motorcycle chase sequence.
Extended/Deleted Scenes – Seven deleted and extended scenes – nothing too exciting here.
Woo’s signature flash and the way he uses the camera as an intrusive voyeur is intact here, and still able to impress from time to time, but it feels mismatched at times with the material. The gravity of tone in Phillip K. Dick’s stories, which was always cautionary and exploratory, is traded here for more whimsical action set pieces and traditional pyrotechnics. It is guilty of doing the very worst thing that can be done to intelligent conceptual thrilling ideas – thinning it out and reducing it to the most average of films. Fans of the film will grin from ear to ear at the superb image and audio quality – others may be unimpressed with the film itself.