A Hollywood sci-fi with a great premise – it must be an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story then. It’s testament to the recent Hollywood machine that Paycheck keeps everything light, fast and entertaining, ditching the dark moral and ethical undertones of the source work prevalent in some of the writer’s other film adaptations such as Blade Runner and Total Recall. Director John Woo appears content to work on autopilot and minus a couple of slow-mo action sequences, one on one stand-off’s and an all too obvious dove, Paycheck could have been directed by anybody. It’s fun while it lasts but this deserves to be on the secondhand counter, as there’s nothing new here.
Ben Affleck plays a scientist who specialises in reverse engineering (apparently) and in his line of work it is required that he has his short term memory erased so he has no clue of what his last project was - all he’s interested in is the ‘paycheck’. Aaron Eckhart approaches him with another top secret engineering feat with the promise of a multimillion dollar payment at the end of it. The drawback is this project will last three years, so Affleck has to chose between the money and losing three years of his life. Of course, our hero opts for the money and finds himself waking up three years later in a lot of trouble. The FBI are investigating him while his previous employees are trying to kill him. The only clues he has to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ are a few everyday objects he mailed to himself before his memory wipe.
Paycheck is like a microwave meal – it’s satisfying while it lasts but there’s something altogether unfulfilling about it. It does take a while to get going and Woo handles the great set-up with about as much subtlety as Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon. The action sequences lack the inventive nature Woo has made his trademark (something that wasn’t lacking in his poor Mission: Impossible sequel), and while a bike chase that ends up being a hide and seek battle of wits does have an element of originality, it’s eye-candy explosions and guns-a-blazing are hollow, lacking any edge-of-your-seat intensity.
Ben Affleck is fine in the role of wronged nice guy, but like heroine Uma Thurman, it’s difficult to believe that two ‘scientists’ can go from over-achieving geniuses to action heroes, dodging bullets and beating up bad guys. Aaron Eckhart has very little to do as the slimy suit, and it’s a pity Paul Giamatti seems to disappear for most of film as his best friend, ‘I told you not to do it’ character is a mini highlight.
Despite its flaws, there’s still something intriguing about Paycheck that keeps you entertained throughout. Largely due to the mystery of the lost three years as Affleck’s character has to piece together what’s going on by the contents of the envelope. The audience are with him, clueless yet enticed by every shred of information he uncovers. Indeed, Paycheck works best as a mystery thriller rather than an action film and had the guns, explosions, bikes and fast cars been put away for Woo’s next adventure in ten-second attention span cinema, the film could have been an excellent, memorable experience.
The picture is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphic enhanced. The image is good if not perfect, the contrast of the original photography providing the picture with somewhat lacking definition. However, the DVD handles the fast edits of the action scenes well, and a scene involving an F.B.I interrogation room being filled with smoke, is terrifically well produced on the disc.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is impressive, with the bike chase being the centerpiece. As much as today’s sound formats are able, this really puts you in the action and all the speakers work overtime to deliver the bullets and explosions flying all around the viewer. The sub-woofer usage is also good, giving the room a bolt of thunderous sound putting the action in the your living room. Everything is crystal clear, almost as if you could count the bullets as they rattle and penetrate metal all around the sound spectrum. Dialogue is clear and well separated, and even when the action isn’t set to eleven, the rear speakers still create great ambience and the .1 channel does its job.
Audio Commentary with director John Woo and screenwriter Dean Georgaris - These two commentaries are presented separately, with Woo concentrating on the technical side of the production. For fans of John Woo this commentary is essential viewing, even though it’s for one of his weaker films. He still has a lot of interesting information, and he does give a good account of how he goes about approaching his films. Screenwriter Dean Georgaris looks at the film from a story and narrative perspective which means that both commentaries complement each other rather than overlap. Both are worthwhile viewing.
Paycheck: Designing The Future - Approximately 18 minutes long, this making-of featurette has interviews with the principle cast including Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman, and director John Woo. This featurette covers a lot in its short running time, so it breezes over casting, pre-production etc. but it has plenty of interesting information.
Tempting Fate: The Stunts Of Paycheck - Approximately 17 minutes in length, this featurette focuses on the action sequences and how they are put together from conception, production and post-production.
Deleted/Extended Scenes - 10 minutes of deleted and additional material is presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. Unfortunately, no director commentary is provided but it looks like all the scenes were cut for timing purposes. There’s more of Paul Giamatti and Uma Thurman, and Aaron Eckhart gets more screen time to show his evil side.
Alternate Ending - This alternate ending doesn’t work as well as the ending used in the final version of the film, but it’s interesting to see how the film could have ended.
Very little to write home about – the film is adequate but hollow, the DVD is adequate but nothing special. Paycheck will no doubt entertain most, while infuriating others, but it will undoubtedly leave your DVD player after the credits have rolled, probably never to spin again.