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As a technologically gifted wizard who reverse-engineers devices in order to find out precisely what makes them work for his greedily amoral employers, Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is used to solving puzzles when all of the pieces have already been assembled and he can relish in taking it apart.
However, when he finishes up his most recent top-secret effort of technological piracy and submits to the requisite short-term memory wipe which deletes all memory of his participation in the event from his brain, Jennings is startled to discover that-- in lieu of a seriously large paycheck-- he’d changed his mind sometime during the process and instead requested that an envelope filled with twenty everyday items be placed in his hands instead.
An odd twist of fate of receiving parts to assemble instead of a whole product to disassemble, Jennings must work backwards trying to build the mystery from the ground up in a way that involves the audience into the quick witted mind of an engineer.
However, after he’s chased by both the authorities as well as ruthless killers-- the Cary Grant likened Michael becomes a Hitchcockian “wrong man” on the run, turning to an Eva Marie Saint style cool blonde in the form of Uma Thurman’s Rachel-- an old flame he doesn’t remember since his involvement with Rachel along with what exactly he did while working for his friend Aaron Eckhart’s company have all been conveniently erased from his mind.
No, this isn’t a play on Christopher Nolan’s brilliant unreliable narrator neo-noir Memento but yet another adaptation of the dangers of technology, the undeniable lure of the almighty dollar, major governmental conspiracy, and psychological paranoia as originally penned in story form by Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Next, and A Scanner Darkly scribe Philip K. Dick.
Although it's filtered twice to decidedly different effect, first through the screenplay crafted by Dean Georgaris (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, the newest version of The Manchurian Candidate, and the underrated Tristan and Isolde). And secondly it's changed again by filmmaker John Woo, who-- despite doing one hell of a great job making us think otherwise with Face/Off--notes on this Blu-ray that he dislikes science fiction. So in response, decided to draw greater inspiration from Hitchcock’s North By Northwest than the Philip K. Dick cinematic landscape with which we’re usually presented.
The results are mixed for the most part for Paycheck as a film overall, but I found myself instantly riveted. For from the start, the brilliant concept of presenting our hero with all of the puzzle pieces he’ll need to survive over the course of the next 118 minute running time is great fun and it works in an effective way similar to David Fincher’s The Game which found Michael Douglas needing to figure out exactly when he had to insert the key into a lock or a handle into a door to escape to safety.
Unfortunately for a movie that’s rooted in an intellectual set-up and—memory wipes aside—a very believable practice of reverse-engineering technology, Paycheck begins to suffer from memory loss fairly on after Jennings only uses one or two puzzle pieces in an in increasingly mindless fashion. And ultimately, we're left understanding that it's a film that cares less about the overall puzzle and pieces involved and more about trying to distract from plot-holes with bravura action sequences and constantly moving, fluid camera work.
Having already succeeded brilliantly at this practice in John Woo’s MI:2 and the cheesy yet ultimately thrilling Broken Arrow, Woo’s attempts here are entertaining from the overall look and retro style of the film (whether it’s in the costuming homage or the fact that just like Hitch, every part of the set was movable and he could shoot in all directions). Likewise, it's a given that his action sequences are first rate but in the end, it’s a dubious and odd work where the actors all seem as though they’d just met each other on the day of filming.
The usual radiance of Thurman is lost here and most likely it’s due to her visibly tired and unhealthily thin physique following her extraordinary turn in Kill Bill 1 & 2. Furthermore Aaron Eckhart and Paul Giamatti’s genuine talent as cerebral actors is wasted in the visual polish and punch of the plot-addled picture, and Ben Affleck isn’t given enough to work with to make Jennings an endearing or likable lead.
In other words, he may be modeled on Cary Grant and Affleck’s movie star looks are well-suited to the production as we discover amusingly that he came highly recommended as the “next” choice when his best friend Matt Damon turned down the script because of its obvious similarities to the Bourne Identity franchise but Affleck is never offered a chance to leave a Grant like impression on a film that isn’t done any favors by its interchangeably bland title.
Overall, one of Woo’s weaker American efforts—Paycheck is additionally one of those films I’ve ended up having to describe to others to remind them that yes, they have seen it since aside from the less than memorable title, in the same token, the film unfortunately drifts from our minds as though we too have had a memory wipe once it’s ended.
A stylishly glossy puzzle that tries to dress itself up with a phony high I.Q. the way a girl puts on high heels to look like her mother and succeeds for thirty minutes or so, Paycheck ultimately stumbles, loses the heels and I.Q. along with its pretense and just tries to deliver on action alone.
However, in the hands of the master who made the incredible Chow Yun Fat picture The Killer, Paycheck keeps you watching with Woo’s trademark motorcycle chases and high impact action sequences but plummets in a ridiculously silly ending that made me hope in earnest that Eckhart’s paycheck was impressive enough to warrant the talented actor’s involvement.
Newly released on Blu-ray—Paramount retains the standard definition presentation of the special features including seven extended and/or deleted scenes, two commentary tracks (one from Woo and the other by Georgaris) and two featurettes that celebrate the Hitchcockian influence and Woo’s work on his Hong Kong features.
And while overall the clarity of the high definition picture impresses indeed and adds a greater depth perception to the work, the balance of the sound is a bit out of whack as the dialogue is barely audible at well past volume level 60 on a high quality LCD television whereas the sound of gunfire and explosions nearly thrusts you out of the chair.
Obviously, with this decision to go for amped up action instead of dialogue—the Blu-ray reaffirms the way that ultimately brains lost out in favor of brawn and the clever little puzzle pieces started to seem like video game pellets to propel Jennings to the next level.
Despite this, it’s a fast-paced Saturday afternoon mindless work of action guaranteed to entertain much, much more than your standard game store cardboard puzzle and looking at Affleck and Eckhart in HD beats looking at a generic postcard landscape any day of the week.