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Laramie Movie Scope: Paycheck

Big-budget sci-fi film bears mark of Woo

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August 17, 2004 -- Director John Woo doesn't really like to do science fiction films, although he has dabbled in the genre with “Face/Off” and “Mission Impossible II.” He was persuaded, however, to do “Paycheck,” a real science fiction story based on a short story by legendary sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick. The result is a curiously aimless and unpolished action film with just a dash of sci-fi. The action sequences are not up to Woo's usual standards, and there's not enough of Dick's original ideas left in the story to be very thought-provoking, but it is intriguing.

Ben Affleck of “Daredevil” stars as Michael Jennings, an expert in reverse-engineering software and hardware. We catch up with him as he is completing an assignment in which he not only steals a three-dimensional display from another company, but improves upon the design. By the way, that is already out of date. Somebody has already developed a computer monitor which can display 3-D images, without the need for special viewing glasses. After completing the assignment, he gets a large paycheck. Part of the deal is he agrees to have his memory erased, so the company is assured of exclusive rights to the product. Soon, he gets another offer for a bigger job, one that will pay him tens of millions of dollars. His friend, Shorty (Paul Giamatti of “American Splendor”), advises him against taking the job, but Jennings takes it anyway, in part because of his attraction to a scientist at the company, Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman of “Kill Bill”).

Three years later, we catch up with Jennings. His job is completed, his memory of the last three years is erased, but instead of a $90 million paycheck, he finds that he has agreed to forego all that money for an envelope containing several everyday items like a crossword puzzle, car keys, cigarettes, hairspray, a book of matches and other similar things. He soon discovers that these seemingly innocuous items are the key to not only saving his life, but the key to saving civilization itself! The basic story is intriguing, but the screenplay, by Dean Georgaris, has more holes than a fishing net. Jennings, who has no training to be a hero, suddenly, when faced with danger, becomes like James Bond, ducking bullets and beating up bad guys. Rather than outsmarting his opponents, he relies on guns and fists. These action scenes play out like many John Woo action scenes, but unlike most martial arts films, there is no explanation how Jennings is able to suddenly become a super hero.

Then there is the little matter of the $90 million paycheck. First, it is in Jenning's bank account, then, a few minutes later, it isn't. What was that all about? Then we have a person swooping in to save Jennings from a goon squad, a person who did not know Jennings even needed to be saved and had no reason for knowing just exactly what to do and say at just the right time. Not only that, but it is just another example of an ordinary person turning into an instant super hero. These plot holes and loose ends could have been explained away without too much trouble, but the film doesn't bother to cover the bases.

The laziness continues with Affleck's acting. He seems to drift aimlessly through the entire film. There is not enough romantic chemistry between him and Uma Thurman. Giamatti is always good, and Aaron Eckhart (“The Core”), along with Colm Feore (“The Chronicles of Riddick”) are solid villains. Joe Morton (“The Astronaut's Wife”) is largely wasted in the role of FBI Agent Dodge, a reluctant participant in some kind of shadowy government conspiracy that is described only vaguely. The whole FBI task force comes off as a clueless bunch of loose cannons. Their motto is to shoot first and ask questions later. Morton is forced to utter some of the silliest, most useless dialogue one can imagine. Screenwriter Dean Georgaris (“The Manchurian Candidate”) can write a lot better than he shows here. This screenplay badly needed a rewrite.

John Woo is a fine director, but this is not one of his better efforts. He probably should have followed his initial inclination and passed on this project. I think you have to at least be a fan of the genre to do a good job with a real science fiction film like this. It really should not have been forced into the action movie mold the way it was. The basic story is very strong. It should have been an adult movie that seriously explored some truly thought-provoking ideas. Instead it is a dumbed-down version of a very smart story. There is enough left of the original idea in the movie to recommend it, just barely. It should have been so much better than it was, however. This film rates a C+.

I saw this movie originally on DVD. It was a rental and it had been scratched up pretty badly, so a bit of chapter four was missing. The rest of it played all right. The sound and image appeared to be of good quality. There are some extras, including the usual “making of” documentary called “Paycheck: Designing the Future,” and another one, “Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck.” It is telling that in the documentary, Woo says that he wanted Matt Damon for the lead role in the film. There are also seven deleted scenes, including an alternate ending. There are some extra audio tracks with separate commentaries by John Woo and Dean Georgaris. Other soundtracks include both English and French Dolby (TM) Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. The DVD comes in both a Widescreen anamorphic version with an aspect ratio of 2:35:1, and a narrow chopped-down version to fit older TV screens. It has both closed captions and English subtitles.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)