Some wonderfully twisted views of society have come from the mind of the late Sci-Fi author Philip K. Dick. With such works as Bladerunner and Total Recall he has always been able to take seemingly ordinary science fiction faire and take it in vastly different directions. The basic concept of Paycheck falls into this category. Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a reverse engineer. He has the profitable ability to take a system with all its chips and connections apart, discover how it works and put it back together in such as fashion that the new device delivers the same function but can get around copyright and patent laws. In return for a paycheck with a large number of zeros he also submits to the dangerous medical procedure of having the memory of his recent work erased from his mind. A billionaire old friend of Jennings, Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) offers him a new job, one with an eight digit paycheck. The only catch is the duration of the job would remove three years of his memories. Jennings will work on a device that can literally glimpse into the future. In preparation Jennings leaves himself clues in a safe deposit box (sort of like the Bourne Identity with Affleck’s buddy Matt Damon) in order to tell himself the danger he would be in after the job is complete. Of course a former love interest, Rachael (Uma Thurman) surfaces to help Jennings on his quest to regain his memories.
What could have been a decent science fiction is infused with almost every hackney contrivance of the action flick. Mysterious men hunt down poor Jennings, determined to kill him. Things blow up; more rounds of ammunition are expended than in both wars in Iraq. The intellectual story by Mister Dick is turned into mindless fodder. Now it is not impossible to combine action with thought provoking science fiction. Total Recall had pretty much the same elements but the execution there was vastly better done. Themes similar to this pop up in Sci-Fi, Jack L. Chalker’s Lord of the Diamond series considers a spy that has the memory of his work removed during his down time, but here the screen play fails to do justice to the concept. Instead of concentrating on the psychological effects of missing so many parts of a person’s memory the film becomes a search and destroy flick. Violence in a film can be used to demonstrate dire circumstances but with Paycheck it has no real justification. If such a technique as memory wiping was available surely the cast and audience would line up for a treatment.
This cast has a proven track record of far better things. It seems that recently many leading men are trying their hand in becoming action heroes; Ben Affleck is now to be counted among their ranks. With films like this and Daredevil Affleck is stretching his wings to a new genre. Now there is nothing wrong with that at all, except when the vehicle for the change is not well considered. Here Affleck seems more lost than his character presentation can justify. A man like Jennings in possession of such an analytical mind would certainly be better able to cope even with people after him. The character just seems to fall apart a little too easily. Uma Thurman is completely wasted in her part. She has the acting ability to pull off any role but the best actress needs something to work with. It is obvious that she can handle the action genre as her recent Kill Bill films demonstrate. Here she is reduced to little more than window dressing. There is little to no chemistry between the romantic leads here. Over all there is a complete lack of genuine emotions to drive the characterizations.
John Woo directs this film like all of his previous ones. There is action galore, bullets fly, seemingly random explosions punctuates the film as the leads run for their lives. Woo is without a doubt the undisputed king of the Hong Kong action genre. He has now made it here in America but with each film there seems to be more sacrifice of plot for action. Here there are many little ‘tip of the hat’ moments honoring Alfred Hitchcock. You may be able to recapture some of our expectations for the film trying to find them all. The big difference between the lauded Hitchcock and Woo is Hitchcock knew almost on an instinctive level what made people tick. Woo slams the film in you face. With this film and the Hulk it seems that just as his actors are breaking into action he is moving towards a more science fiction oriented career. To be fair, Woo knows how to pace an action flick. Like a roller coaster he takes the audience through peaks and valleys of excitement. A director and script that retained the original ideas and thoughts behind Dick’s original story would have worked better. This is a tale better told as a psychological thriller than an action movie.
Paramount has been gaining the reputation of giving all of their films the best possible DVD presentation, this film is no exception. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is free of defects and the colors are extremely well balanced. With an action film that shifts rapidly from dark to light scenes many DVDs exhibit compression artifacts, almost none are to be found here. The Dolby 5.1 audio booms out around your living room. The sub woofer is in almost constant use in the many high action sequences, the explosions reverberate through the rear speakers. The commentary track featuring Woo goes into much of the details of creating such a film. At times his accent makes understanding a bit difficult, especially during the high impact scenes. There are two main featurettes; one detailing the creation of the futuristic world the story is set and the other considering the main energetic stunts that drive much of the film. Round off the disc with a number of deleted or extended scenes. While this film does not live up to expectations if you are interested in the typical Woo faire you will like it. Philip K. Dick fans should seek entertainment elsewhere.