Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Eddie comment on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.
The Film According to John:
Whatever would Hollywood sci-fi do without author Philip K. Dick? Think among his other titles of "Blade Runner," "Total Recall," "Screamers," "Minority Report," "Imposter," "A Scanner Darkly," and the motion picture reviewed here, John Woo's 2003 adaptation of Dick's short story "Paycheck." I wish I could say that "Paycheck" was as good as "Blade Runner" or "Minority Report" or that Woo was as good as he was in "Broken Arrow" or "Face/Off," but, alas, neither is true. "Paycheck" is just another preposterously far-fetched fantasy outing for everyone involved.
Oh, sure, because it's Woo, the movie is slick, and because it has a big budget it looks attractive, but that doesn't negate the fact that it's mainly a film where the hero outruns subway trains and fireballs. In other words, nothing new.
However, the fact that "Paycheck" is basically a brainless action thriller isn't its only problem. The film's central concept is actually pretty clever. The problem is where the movie takes it. The other problem, I hesitate to say, is the star and his relationship to the rest of the cast. Let me explain both concerns.
First, the story: It's based on another of those canny Philip K. Dick premises that promises more than it delivers, at least here. The movie's setting is the near future (although it looks like 2003) when science has created a method of erasing one's memories. The main character, the hero, is Mike Jennings, a genius computer engineer who makes his living by agreeing to develop revolutionary hardware and software for big corporations and then have his memory of it erased so that he can't sell the ideas to anyone else. He usually works for a company for two or three months, and the company pays him generously for it (in the $500,000 range). He's single, relatively carefree, and doesn't mind the missing time.
Then he goes for the big one. An old college buddy, Jimmy Rethrick, now the big-shot owner of a top computer company, offers Mike a $92,000,000 paycheck if he'll accept a job requiring three years of his life. Mike thinks it over for about two seconds and says yes. One big paycheck and he'll never have to work again. But there's a catch Mike never anticipated: When he wakes up after the three-year memory erasure, he finds he doesn't have the money. During his three years work, it seems he voluntarily signed a letter forfeiting the entire amount. All he's got for his time is a manila envelope that he left to himself containing an odd assortment of personal trinkets and gadgets--a crossword puzzle, a paper clip, a bullet, a bottle of hair spray, a fortune-cookie note, etc.
Worse, he soon finds that the FBI are after him for conspiring to steal state secrets, and the very company he was working for are after him for heaven knows what else. In other words, he doesn't know what happened in the last three years except that a lot of people want him behind bars or dead.
And that's it. That's basically where Woo takes over as an action director, and from then on it's all shoot, run, fight, and chase. And, unfortunately, it isn't even Woo at his best, the action stunts seeming tired and repetitive.
Now, to the second concern. Ben Affleck stars as Mike Jennings. Affleck is a handsome and talented guy who has proven his acting chops in movies like "Hollywoodland"; but as an action hero he is as bland as white wallpaper. He makes George Lazenby look like Laurence Olivier. Maybe it's not his fault; I don't know. Maybe it's the way Woo and others direct him in these things. In any case, his character here seems to have his face set in stone and no sense of humor whatsoever. I mean, we don't care one way or the other about him, especially when we see from the beginning that all he cares about is money.
Equally damaging to the film, though, is Jennings's interaction with the other cast members. First, there's his old friend Rethrick, played by Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart makes more of an impression in his limited screen time than Affleck does with nearly two hours on stage. It doesn't help when the star gets constantly upstaged.
Next, there's Jennings's romantic interest, Dr. Rachel Porter, played by Uma Thurman. She's a biologist Jennings meets and presumably falls in love with during his three-year stint with Rethrick's company. Yet after his memory erasure, he's supposed to have forgotten her. OK, we can accept that idea, and that he's going to have to fall in love with all over again. This is, after all, a traditional action thriller, and when there's a handsome hero and a beautiful heroine, certainly they're going to fall in love. But you hear critics talk all the time about screen "chemistry"? Here we have none. Zero. Zilch. Affleck and Thurman might as well be two bricks in a wall for all the attraction we see between them. Yeah, I hear you say, but at the end don't we see it? No.
Supporting cast? There's Paul Giamatti as Shorty, Jennings's best friend. Like Eckhart, Giamatti easily upstages Affleck in their few scenes together, Giamatti playing a sort of comic sidekick and providing the film's only humorous relief. But Giamatti isn't in the film long enough for us to get to know him. The same thing with Colm Feore as a head baddie, and Joe Morton and Michael C. Hall as FBI agents. The film never develops these characters far enough or long enough for us to care about them one way or another.
"Paycheck" starts with an intriguing premise and then gets pretty silly pretty fast as it goes in the direction of an all-out action thriller and leaves science and imagination and intellect behind. By the time the finale rolls around, we find everything so inflated that it's entirely unbelievable even by action-movie standards. That envelope of goodies that we think might be interesting turns out to be more funny than serious, which also hampers the film. And when the computer nerd turns out to be a martial-arts expert, too, and the lady biologist can kick ass a la "Kill Bill," it's more than a bit hard to take.
"Paycheck" takes two hours to watch and two minutes to forget.
John's film rating: 5/10
The Film According to Eddie:
John Woo is one of my favorite directors. However, since coming to America, Woo has essentially become de-fanged. His Hollywood efforts may feature some of his iconography and style, but they don't cover the same themes as his Hong Kong crime dramas. Tellingly, Woo's most critically and artistically successful American movie, "Face/Off," is the one that most-resembles "A Better Tomorrow," "The Killer," and "Hard-Boiled."
The funny thing about Woo is that he admits that he doesn't like science fiction. Yet, he keeps making movies influenced by sci-fi, such as "Face/Off," "Mission: Impossible 2," and "Paycheck." The sci-fi elements in "Face/Off" were brushed aside by Woo's intense examination of duality. Likewise, "Mission: Impossible 2" didn't need its sci-fi elements in order to work. Yet, the premise of "Paycheck" lies outside of Woo's caring, and you can sense that the director was marking time until his next project. (What really worries me is that, in the interviews on the "Paycheck" DVD, Woo's eyes indicate that he's either really exhausted or really sick.)
In "Paycheck," Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) builds a machine that allows a person to see the future. However, once a person sees the future, he can change it. Sound familiar? Yep, the same premise was used for "Minority Report" (Steven Spielberg, 2002). In fact, "Paycheck" plays like a remake of "Minority Report," right down to the 3-D graphical interface that Michael uses at the beginning of the movie (shades of the 3-D computers in "Minority Report") and the machine that looks into the future (shades of the video monitors in the ceiling inside the Pre-Cogs' "temple" in "Minority Report"). Michael even escapes from his pursuers the way that Agatha helps John Anderton escape the Pre-Crime cops--since he saw the future, Michael knows how to avoid being caught.
Both "Paycheck" and "Minority Report" were based on short stories by Philip K. Dick. Perhaps Dick repeated himself simply because he was preoccupied by themes like predestination and fate. However, just because Dick repeated himself doesn't mean that moviemakers have to retread the same territory over and over again. What's more, "Paycheck" is a lackluster effort, so it's not even a decent experience. Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman have little chemistry, and Aaron Eckhart has yet to convince me that he is a good actor. Since there is so little ingenuity and so much ordinariness, "Paycheck" never achieves any momentum or visceral excitement despite the presence of Woo's constantly moving camera and a motorcycle chase that goes against the flow of traffic.
Considering that "Paycheck" is a by-the-numbers, juvenile remake of "Minority Report," there is little reason to see it. It's not an outright bad movie, but it's been done well elsewhere. Therefore, only die-hard fans of John Woo will enjoy "Paycheck" on any level. Admittedly, I am one of those Woo fans, but since I think that "Minority Report" is one of the best movies made during the past twenty years, guess how many times I'll re-watch "Paycheck."
Eddie's film rating: 6/10
In the first couple of scenes, you'd think this was going to be the best-looking film ever transferred to Blu-ray, but when you notice that close-ups are awfully soft, it slightly tarnishes the illusion. Paramount/Dreamworks do a good job for the most part, though, using an MPEG-4/AVC video codec and spreading the film over two layers of a BD50. The colors are very rich and natural; the definition in medium and long shots is quite sharp; detailing is fine; and black levels are strong. But there is a slight smearing in close-ups, as I say, especially in faces, plus a minor, occasional line fluctuation that keeps the picture quality from the highest echelon.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio takes a while to warm up, as Woo slowly develops the intensity level of his story. At first, the soundtrack simply seems more loud than anything else, yet in the long run, we notice a powerful dynamic impact; a firm, taut midrange and bass; and surrounds that pick up energy as the movie goes on, culminating in a finale that heats up one's entire listening area.
The bonuses include the usual elements we find with most discs. First, we get two audio commentaries, one by director John Woo and another by screenwriter Dean Georgaris. Of the two, I'd choose neither, but if you have to, switch back and forth between them as I did. Woo is more engrossing to listen to; Georgaris is more matter-of-fact. Then we get two brief promotional featurettes: "Paycheck: Designing the Future," eighteen minutes with the stars and director; and "Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck," sixteen minutes, both in standard definition. Moving on, we get seven extended and/or deleted scenes, again in standard def, for a total of about twelve minutes.
The disc concludes with twenty-two scene selections; bookmarks; a guide to elapsed time; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Paycheck" is a perfectly acceptable actioner that just happens to look like every other Philip K. Dick special-effects thriller ever made. Maybe Woo makes it seem more sophisticated and more fluid than some of the competition, but in the end it's still just people running for their lives from other people.