When the topic of “What was John Woo’s worst American film?” comes up, there are two secure camps: some will tell you without hesitation that it’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II and others who’ll say PAYCHECK. MI2 isn’t quite Woo’s fault, beyond accepting a job with an actor-producer-control freak actually calling the shots, which leaves PAYCHECK, a crushingly dull experience that attempts to do to its audience what Uncle Joey Nichols tried to do to young Alvy Singer – mollify him with a shiny object long enough to sneak away.
Using Philip K Dick’s short story as a carpet upon which which star Ben Affleck can chase and be chased throughout whichever Canadian city was doubling for America when the film was made back in 2003, PAYCHECK casts Affleck as reverse engineer Michael Jennings, who is hired by companies to break-down the technology of competitors while isolated in a lab for periods up to several months. Once the job is finished, Jennings memory is erased to the point when the job began and he collects a large – wait for it – Paycheck! Jennings’ next job, which lasts for three years, finds him in the employ of old friend Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), the president of a Microsoft-like corporation. The problem is, after Jennings’ memory has been erased and he expects to receive payment, he learns that he has forfeited his shares without explanation; all he has to show for the last 3 years of his life are a group of innocuous everyday trinkets that he had mailed himself prior to having his memory blanked, including sunglasses, lighter, ring, hairspray, etc. Before Jennings can reach Rethrick for an explanation, he’s captured by federal agents (including Joe Morton and a pre-Dexter Michael C Hall) and accused of treason. Jennings affects an escape, thanks to the unusual objects he had sent himself, and joins forces with Rethrick employee Rachel (Uma Thurman), with whom he had shared a long relationship that was erased along with his memories. Together they discover the project that Jennings had helped to develop: one that the FBI wants him in jail for and Rethrick wants him dead for, a machine that enables the user to see into the future.
Not long after his celebrated move to America, John Woo found himself in the unfortunate position of being marginalized by his own imagery – all of Woo’s trademark stylistic flourishes are present here, save perhaps the ubiquitous flying doves. By 2003, the sight of mortal enemies standing toe to toe, pointing guns in each other’s face with geometric precision, had moved well beyond trite and was now comfortably ensconced the basement department of DTV potboilers. This leaves PAYCHECK in an unfortunate position; watching the film marching joylessly through the rote narrative sections is tedious and relieved only by the ridiculously hyped-up action sequences that turn a software engineer into an unstoppable fighting machine or expert motorcycle operator. Inconsistencies like these would be a better film’s undoing, but there is so little emotional investment in the characters that by the time Affleck and Thurman have the customary tearful “Don’t you dare leave me, Michael!” during the final action sequence, the result is embarrassingly humorous, though not as funny as Affleck and Eckhart strangling each other with glowing compu-cord straight off the set of Quark.
Many people will tell you that the best actors are the ones that allow the audience to enter inside the character’s emotional or psychological curtain. Affleck, on the other hand, guards that entrance while reclining in an easy chair with a shotgun across his lap. We’ve had this experience before while watching surfing documentaries; we can certainly appreciate a well executed maneuver (and Affleck is quite funny when first incredulously eyeing the items he mailed to himself), but otherwise, we have no frame of reference and experience no vicarious thrill.
Thurman tries hard in a virtually non-existent role; indeed, the screenplay could have written her character out with only minor alterations (we don’t think – and would be happy to hear otherwise – that her character even exists in Dick’s short story). Poor Eckhart was still dripping with the misogynistic Brill Cream that roles in two Neil LaBute films had left him with, and is only now finding roles that show his considerable range. Also look for the usually interesting Colm Feore as an assassin who’s hated for window glass and concrete hallways seems to get in the way of his job. Interestingly, Jennings’ friend and assistant, Shorty, is well played by Paul Giamatti, in the last role prior to his breakthrough in Sideways. We’ve heard that Giamatti is a fan of Philip K. Dick and is currently playing the author in a biopic called The Owl in Daylight. Anyone looking for insights into Dick’s work is advised to save the two hours that are required to view PAYCHECK and wait for Owl to be released.
Paramount’s Blu-Ray idsc of PAYCHECK presents a bright, colorful 1080p image that definitely improves the viewing experience. The film is 6 years old, but the Blu-Ray plays like that of a just-released picture, and the Dolby TrueHD is equally good. Fans of the film – and we will not debate their judgment here – will certainly want to upgrade from the SD-DVD.
All special features from the original DVD have been ported over; they include 2 commentary tracks, one by director John Woo and the other by writer Dean Georgaris. There are also 2 EPK-style documentaries, one focusing on the general production, featuring the usual on-set cast and crew interviews, and the other on the impressive stuntwork. There are also a collection of deleted and extended scenes.
However, like other recent Paramount releases, PAYCHECK‘smenu structure is frustrating. Commentaries, languages, scene selections and subtitles can be accessed via the standard Blu-Ray popup menu, but to get to any of the other extras you have to go out of the film and back to the home screen, willfully ignoring one of the format’s nicest perks.
After the non-performance of PAYCHECK, Woo directed an unaired pilot for a revamped Lost in Space series and supervised a videogame called Stranglehold, a semi-sequel to Hard-Boiled -which utilized much of Woo’s Hong Kong action style and reunited him with Chow Yun-Fat as Inspector “Tequila” Yuen. Since then, however, he has returned to Hong Kong, where he just finished the sequel to the extremely successful period epic Red Cliff, reuniting him with another Hard-Boiled star, Tony Leung. It might sound odd, but as a longtime (and hopefully, future) fan of Woo, we hope we never returns.