If I’m being honest, John Woo’s big move from making home grown, Hong Kong, action bangers to adjusting to a career blowing shit up in America was something of a mixed bag. Oh sure, Face/Off was a magnificently bonkers gurn off between two of Hollywood’s top eccentrics and Hard Target featured a mulled Jean Claude Van Damn spin kicking his way through some of the slickest action of his career, but the rest of Woo’s Western output leaves a lot to be desired. Broken Arrow and Windtalkers had their moments while the final act of Mission: Impossible II contains some good shit, but there was a definite sense that the days of The Killer and Hard Boiled had deserted him like a lone dove fluttering through an inferno in slo-mo.
However, any hope of the auteur of action making a Face/Off style comeback was royally dashed with 2003’s Phillip K. Dick adaptation, Paycheck, a movie whose title seemed to literally be the explanation why anyone agreed to do it…
In the near future, Michael Jennings makes his living as a reverse engineer, which means he’s hired to take new products from rival corporations and recreates them while improving on their design and to protect himself and his unscrupulous employers, he has his mind wiped of any incriminating memories. For someone who makes a living shafting professionally shafting people over, Michael seems to be a fairly amiable guy, but he does have a taste for the finer things in life, hence why he takes on a new job from his college roommate and CEO of a tech company, James Rethrick, who offers him a job that will set him up for life and will take up (and eventually erase) up the three years of his life.
Things start off well and he even sparks up a relationship with biologist Dr. Rachel Porter, but years later, Michael finds himself not only bereft of three years worth of memory, but it turns out he’s also forfeited his sizable paycheck in favour of an envelope full of everyday items and at first, Jennings is understandably apoplectic, but matters get increasingly worse when the FBI pick him up, demanding to know what he’s been working on. However, escaping custody thanks to some of those everyday items, Michael finds he’s in the middle of a conspiracy he helped create, yet has no memory of and as he explore the contents of his envelope even further, he begins to backtrack and piece together what the hell he was actually working on.
With Rethrick’s thugs finding that Michael’s foresight makes him exceedingly hard to kill, or hero tries to rekindle his relationship with Rachel in order to shed some much needed light on his predicament and try to work out what it was he saw that’s put him in such peril – but even he wasn’t expecting to find out that what he saw was – the future.
Much like 2007’s Next, that other Phillip K. Dick adaptation that featured a future-peeking protagonist, Paycheck is saddled with an intriguing premise that the script seems to have no idea how to pull off in a way that’s even remotely entertaining. The real issue is in the storytelling itself which has our voluntarily amnesiac lead escape every problem thanks to his envelope of pure deus ex machina that essentially means we know he can get out of any situation before he does. Needlessly to say, this puts a sizable dent in any tension the film may have had as instead of us gasping at a cinematic magic trick of Michael pulling off escapes right out of the fourth dimension, we just wait for him to pull out a random bit of bric-a-brac to move the plot along. Woo’s attempts to render such a concept cinematically pales in comparison to the mall scene in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report where Samatha Morton’s precognitive Agatha drags Tom Cruise through a mall full of officers and where the 2005 Dick adaptation is full of directorial verve, Paycheck treats Jennings’ gifts as oddly matter-of-fact.
Another issue that arises with Woo’s direction is that his while his emotional, heart on his sleeve style works wonders when concerning gargantuan gunfights and personal matters of honour, when transferred to the paranoid, Black Mirror-esque worlds that Phillip K. Dick are so wary of, it make things simply feel a bit silly. Take some of the production design; while some other directors who gave tackled the authors work have either gone dark (Ridley Scott), clunky (Paul Verhoven) or functional (Spielberg), Woo gives everything a obnoxious plasticky feel, like the future has be designed to look like an X-Box or something and while I understand that this might be the glimpse of a flatly disposable look that the director is going for, it doesn’t make sense that a device for viewing the future has to look like a view screen from Star Trek and have green glowing circuit boards.
The movie is helped even less by it leads with Ben Affleck having to portray a man who’s job is literally to smugly cheat other companies out of their tech during that period of his career when the world couldn’t fucking stand him and while I quite like Ben Affleck as an actor and a director, everytime he smirks you have to fight the urge to physically dislodge some of his pearly whites while elsewhere, the mouth waters at the prospect of Uma Thurman, still fresh from the bloody triumph of Kill Bill Vol 1, appearing in a John Woo action movie – but to our horror, she attacks the role as if she’s in a romantic comedy as her performance as a biologist is as about convincing as her distractingly coloured tan.
As a couple, they are excruciatingly annoying, but the movie baits us even more by having this tech genius and this scientist be randomly good at being action heroes, flawlessly steering motorcycles through traffic and out-shooting trained guards as if they’ve been training for it their entire lives and while Woo can still stage a diverting – if unearned – action beat, it feels here that he’s merely pretending to be John Woo instead of being John Woo as he guides his unlikable leads through evermore far-fetched set-pieces.
A supporting cast sees the likes of Paul Giamatti and Aaron Eckhart play to type (shouty best friend and evil suit respectively), but it seems that whatever magic Woo brought with him from Hong Kong was all used up while staging Nicolas Cage and John Travolta’s various freak outs in the vastly superior Face/Off. However, even though we didn’t know it back in 2003, if we were to glimpse into out own device to see the future, we would see that the director managed to return to his homeland and regain his mojo with the majestic Red Cliffs and even has an American comeback on the cards.
I guess it is truly amazing what the future holds, but if I could have predicted Paycheck back before it was cashed, I would have torn that sucker up…