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Philip K. Dick became one of the most well known science fiction writers ever in the wake of the hit movie Blade Runner that unfortunately was released just as he passed away. But judging by the movies that have been made from Dick's intriguing time-bending and memory-molding novels and short stores, his legacy is mired in the "new" Sci-fi movie notion that every brilliant concept must be set in a conventional action-conspiracy story with plenty of gunfights, chases and explosions. 1993's Paycheck is a reasonably entertaining and lavishly produced thriller. Readers who want a dose of real Dickian magic should forget the movies and go directly to his novels The Man in the High Castle, UBIK and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Tell 'em Perky Pat sent you.
Taken on its own terms, Paycheck is an exciting and reasonably intelligent suspense thriller that does indeed engage one's imagination. The story is so tightly plotted that the characters haven't a lot of room to do more than serve their functions, and casting Ben Affleck as the main character leaves a sort of void at the center. Affleck has since grown as an actor, and now puts more effort into giving us a reason to care for his characters. Back here in Paycheck he expects his chiseled profile and blank expressions to do most of the work.
Super-competent engineer Michael Jennings (Affleck) hires out to companies to reverse-engineer the cutting-edge products of their competitors, to jam the market with slightly improved knock-offs. To maintain secrecy and enforce the company's hold on anything new that Michael might develop, a new technology allows his memory to be erased back to a certain time. Memory alteration expert Shorty (Paul Giamatti) sees Jennings through the process and makes sure that he comes out OK at the other end. All that Michael remembers is that he did a job and got paid.
Billionaire Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) hires Jennings for a job that will take three years and earn him not thousands but many millions of dollars. Because they've worked before, Michael trusts Rethrick; this time a new biological method will be used to delete his memory. In a flash, three years seem to have passed for MIcheal; he's finished the secret job and his memory has been erased. He goes to pick up his $90 million dollar paycheck, and is told that he forfeited it. Worse, the FBI is after him: they claim that the project he's been working on for three years was stolen from the government, and he's in big trouble. Jennings remembers nothing about the project, and nothing about Rachel (Uma Thurman), a brilliant biologist with whom he had an affair. But he has sent himself an envelope with twenty seemingly useless items ... each of which suddenly becomes extremely useful in some unexpected way. Michael has to avoid both the FBI and Rethrick's hired assassins, solve the puzzle of the items in the envelope, and find out why he turned down $90 million dollar payday.
Paycheck is not an easy script to write under any conditions, as laying out all the necessary exposition for such a complicated concept could easily become a big headache. Dean Georgaris does a commendable job keeping coherent a story that introduces a new twist every six minutes. We've seen Philip K. Dick's memory puzzles reduced to clever narrative devices in movies from Total Recall to Minority Report, and Paycheck's straightforward approach works quite well.
On the surface Paycheck is similar to old-fashioned "amnesia" stories like Joseph Mankiewicz's film noir classic Somewhere in the Night. A guy with no memory appears out of nowhere and tries to get to the bottom of a mystery he can't remember, while gangsters shoot at him and people who say they knew him try to direct his actions. In Paycheck Jennings is given too much information in the form of that envelope of odd items -- a bus token, a key, a fortune cookie fortune with a number on the back. He also deduces that he has a lunch date with a girl, but he doesn't even know what she looks like.
Director John Woo keeps things hopping. He was clearly hired to transform Paycheck into the kind of action thriller that boosted him into top-tier American production. The gunfights and chases are beautifully blocked and filmed but are still the kind of hyped impossible stuff that happens in cartoonish action films -- with machine guns that never hit anything and our heroes repeatedly escaping dire extinction by the skin of their eyeballs. Woo's idea of a personal touch is to have gunmen point pistols at each other, point blank. That gag seldom works unless actor Chow Yun-Fat is involved. Yoo uses it twice.
All the frenetic activity can't hide the fact that Paycheck follows the same schematic as the old Sci-fi film This Island Earth. Playboy engineer Jennings has a scientist girlfriend (who repeatedly states that she's a botanist, so we won't forget) 1 and a trusty, sexless sidekick with a funny name (Shorty) to help out when he's in a jam. The Evil Corporate Crook is a half-dimensional character more suited to a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. The secret "Big Whatsis" Jennings was secretly working on (I won't give it away) isn't all that compelling. When it is revealed that the invention might precipitate the end of the world, engineer Jennings immediately formulates a "correct" humanist viewpoint inconsistent with the character of a guy who hires out as a technical mercenary.
The show zooms along fast enough to keep us from questioning its central concept. But are any of these observations valid?
1) If Jennings is such a fabulously talented engineer, why is he doing such crooked work? Can his salary be that much greater than honest employment?
2) How come the visions in the memory machine's view screen (not to mention the secret invention's view screen) look like filmed and edited movies, complete with special effects?
3) If Jennings has had all memory of the secret invention erased, how does he have any idea how it works? How does he know how to operate it?
4) If Michael spent three years of bliss with Rachel, what would prevent him from hiding a record of his activities with her or in her apartment, to be accessed later after his memory is wiped? (her photos make it look as if he didn't stay in the workplace complex ... even if he did.)
5) The mechanics of Jennings' envelope and its contents brings up the old problem of time machine stories that can't decide whether events are fated or mutable. Paycheck repeatedly uses his envelope "items" to alter the future, which ends up at the same ending point anyway.
Those aren't meant to be damning criticisms -- none of them was a hindrance to enjoying the film. The most compelling thing about the concept is the idea that Michael's brain is routinely wiped to eliminate his claim on the "intellectual property" he sells to various companies. Movie companies are just as concerned by this as high tech firms -- in today's business, creative contractees without clout are warned not to claim paternity for their works. The company invariably reserves the right to "own" everything they touch.
When all is said and done, Paycheck seems to reduce Philip K. Dick's brain games to story gimmicks. I mean, grabbing a lighter and hairspray to make a flamethrower wasn't convincing in the FX movies. Frankly, Woo's film reminds us of a singularly brilliant throwaway gag in the mostly lame-brained Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. At one point in that 1989 film Keanu Reeves' idiotic teen realizes he's forgotten his keys, is locked out of his car, and can't flee the bad guys. Reeves has a "Eureka!" moment -- he'll just remember to use his time machine later to put the keys in a planter a few feet away, so they'll be there NOW when he needs them. Reeves has no sooner said that than he looks in the planter, and whattaya know, the keys are there! Excellent! Paycheck pulls that same gag out of its hat nineteen times as a clever way to keep its plot going. 2
None of the actors in this movie do standout work, with Paul Giamatti and Uma Thurman bland as Affleck's buddy and lover, respectively. Aaron Eckhardt is too obviously a bad guy. Joe Morton (The Brother from Another Planet, Lone Star) is effective as an exceptional "good" FBI man, the kind who lies to his superiors so the hero can escape. The movie isn't very flattering to FBI agents or evil corporate billionaires.
Paramount's Blu-ray of Paycheck is a dazzling show in HD, snappily filmed and benefiting from excellent art direction. One look at Rethrick's Ken Adam-like offices and we know he's up to no good.
For extras, we get a John Woo commentary and one by screenwriter Dean Georgaris, who says that Woo wanted the title sequence to have a slick look. That's perhaps why it so closely apes the "air computer" scene in Minority Report. The disc also comes with two featurettes. On one of them Woo admits that he originally wanted Matt Damon to play the lead role. Another featurette covers the complicated stunts for the picture. The deleted scenes are particularly interesting because most are brief and add linking exposition or action. A brief bit in a stretch limo justifies a line spoken by Paul Giamatti at the end, and an extended scene in Rachel's apartment explains the presence of a spy camera. But the movie plays well without every little irregularity explained. This is the kind of show where, if someone mentions a postage stamp or a smoke detector, we know they'll be come important later on.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Paycheck Blu-ray rates:
2. But they dropped the 20th item by not returning to the subject of the lost engagement ring. (The fate of the ring is resolved in a rather awkward deleted ending.) Is the ring really meant to bring Jennings out of the bus at a particular place in the city, or does it have Rachel's name engraved, to remind him who he's supposed to ask to marry?
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.