|Paycheck (Special Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 18 May 2004|
Philip K. Dick was one of the finest science fiction writers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he died at a relatively early age and we are left to wonder what he would think of all of the films that have been made based on his short stories. “Blade Runner” is the only film he ever got to see any part of, but others, such as “Minority Report” and “Total Recall,” have been made since then. The latest Dick work to be transferred to the big screen is “Paycheck,” a brilliant story that transfers onto the screen under the steady eye and frenetic hand of acclaimed action director John Woo with mixed results.
The film begins by introducing us to Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), a brilliant engineer who is hired to essentially steal electronic and computer designs from other companies by taking apart what they have, figuring out how they work and then copying and improving upon the technology. At the end of the process, two months in most cases, he receives a handsome paycheck and has his memory of the past two months erased. The technician who does the erasing, Shorty (Paul Giamatti), is also Jennings’ pal. Jennings insists that he doesn’t mind the missing memories, considering he gets well paid and doesn’t care to remember the two months of 18-hour workdays.
As soon as the project is completed, Jennings’ boss Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) asks him to do another project that will take three years of his life, all of which will be erased. In return, Jennings will be paid nearly 100 million dollars. After some thought, Jennings decides to go through with it. The same night that Rethrick presents Jennings with the offer, Jennings meets Dr. Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman), a biologist that works for Rethrick. When Jennings is taken to his new assignment, he sees that Rachel also works in the same complex. As a condition of his work, he cannot leave the complex and is required to hand over all personal items: his watch, sunglasses, etc.
Three years later, Jennings has completed the project and has his memory erased. However, when he goes to retrieve his money, he is told that he forfeited all of his shares for an envelope full of odds and ends, including a different watch, different sunglasses, and other knickknacks. Jennings is understandably upset by this mix-up but even more so when the FBI reels him in and accuses him of treason. They want to know what he was doing, but he of course doesn’t remember. He escapes with the aid of two of the items from the envelope and soon discovers that he left himself these things for when his three years of work finished. Jennings realizes he built something that could see into the future (a recurring theme in Dick’s stories) and so he sent himself the items to either help him remember that past three years or to avoid what he knew would happen to him. He reteams with Rachel, whom he doesn’t remember, and must try to find out what the rest of the items are for and how he is to stop Rethrick from using what he built. Meanwhile, Rethrick is trying to kill Jennings before he can do any damage. What ensues is an exciting game of cat and mouse where Jennings is trying to remember that which he can’t.
This is a great story by Philip K. Dick, one I happened to have read about a year ago. The simple idea of someone sending themselves a bunch of seemingly innocuous items and then having to figure out what they’re for is ingenious. The film has this going for it to begin with and the screenplay does an admirable job of transferring this conceit. However, we are ultimately talking about a John Woo/Ben Affleck movie, so not everything works. Some of the action sequences, while seamlessly executed, seem slightly out of place and occasionally silly. Affleck does an okay job, but he can’t help but look and sound goofy sometimes. The quieter parts of the movie are the best, when Jennings is trying to figure out what happened and when he uses each item. While the action set pieces are impressive, sometimes they detract from the narrative momentum. In addition, Jennings seems somewhat painfully clueless, having figured out what Rethrick is doing but still trying to stay one step ahead. If Jennings saw the future, then he would have seen what Rethrick was doing to stop him. It’s a small thing but sometimes it feels bigger. Overall, the film is aided primarily by its initial concept. Take that away and the film ends up being just another half-baked, slick production.
The two featurettes are standard, though the one about the stunts is nice because it discusses each set piece in turn. Instead of having just a general overview of the stuntwork, the featurette makers present an overview and then go step by step through each major sequence. The sound is excellent, mixed to perfection, and the picture is pretty much flawless, meaning I was looking but didn’t see any blemishes. Animated menus are pretty well designed but there are no Easter eggs (I looked everywhere) and no moving scene selections. I always say that a DVD is best when the scene selection windows actually have the scene playing within them. Oh, well. “Paycheck” is like most DVDs that have come out since the realization that special features are at a premium: it has them but doesn’t go super-overboard, no doubt waiting to see if demand is high enough for a deluxe edition to come out in two or three years.
The audio commentary by director Woo discusses many things, from how he wanted to change the futuristic tone of the script to his appraisal of each actor. It is a sometimes less technically focused commentary than those familiar with Woo’s films might expect. He is very concerned with performance and with the differences in how each of the actors works. One needs to pay attention during the commentary due not only to Woo’s accent but also his rather deep voice. The commentary by screenwriter Dean Georgaris is rather dull, as many of his comments are repetitive of the various special features. His main tactic is to describe what is different from the first draft of the script, but this grows tiresome fairly quickly. What is missing is how exactly he went about adapting a short story for the screen. Granted, commentaries are a tough thing to do well. Personality is a big factor.
Using a fantastic story by Dick, “Paycheck” already has a lot going for it that its slickness and sometimes silliness cannot completely overwhelm the premise. It is an enjoyable movie for what it is, but don’t go into it with any lofty expectations, or disappointment is sure to result.