Skip to main content

So you’re saying he designed his own escape?


Paycheck
(2003)

As Philip K Dick-inspired misfires go, there are about 20 minutes of reasonable material in Paycheck, where you can just about see the author’s fingerprints. As Ben Affleck turkeys go, it topped off a year of disasters (including Daredevil and Gigli) that put paid thoughts of stardom until he reinvented himself as a director. As John Woo pictures go, it’s so deficient you have to wonder if he was only ever mistakenly credited as the talent to be reckoned with in action cinema.

As ever with Dick, the core idea has plenty of potential; Michael Jennings (Affleck) takes reverse engineering jobs for clients who wish to equal or improve their competitors’ products. Following each engagement, Jennings’ memory is wiped, for both his protection and that of his client’s intellectual property rights. An old friend (Aaron Eckhart), the CEO of technology company Allcom, persuades him to take a three-year contract. This is of a significantly greater length than any previously successful mind-wiped, but the promise of enough riches for retirement quickly persuades Jennings. However, when he has completed the job, and his mind has been wiped, he discovers that he has changed the rules; while working on the project he surrendered his stock and left a breadcrumb trail of clues that will clarify why.

The revelation of what Jennings was working on, and the ethical consequences of it, will no doubt feel somewhat familiar. That isn’t why the Woo’s film fails, though. It’s because, after an intriguing set up, it is content to kick along as a generic action movie. There is no interest in exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the central idea (except in the most glib of fashions), or the specifics of the process that informs how the 20 items Jennings has left for himself are decided upon. That would take hard work (the screenplay is credited to Dean Georgias, responsible for such gems as the Tomb Raider sequel and Tristan + Isolde). I’m still trying to work out what possessed FBI guy Joe Morton to start smoking indoors, in an interrogation room with sprinkler systems, other than it was expedient to the plot. Items at Jennings’ flat (ying-yang balls, a palmistry hand) suggest preoccupations of prediction and balance, but in retrospect they are merely clumsy signifiers trying to make up for the dearth of depth elsewhere.

The design of the movie is bland or obvious in its futurism. The directorial and editing choice are clumsy and uninspired. Woo’s trademark slow motion is painfully out-of-place and embarrassingly cheesy. The action beats flounder, never providing any thrills. He’s the wrong guy for the job; a wannabe cerebral script reduced to a bargain basement actioner. Almost every visual choice shows a paucity of imagination, be it Jennings’ flashbacks or the question mark he forms his items into. There’s a dire motorbike chase, the de rigueur appearances of a dove and a gun standoff. And really dumb dialogue. The John Powell score is seemingly wall-to-wall, so someone must have been hoping it would drown out the nonsense being spouted.

Frankly, with Affleck’s performance, you can see why he fell from grace. He’s dull and unconvincing, particularly as an action guy (Woo had to put in a scene of future-martial arts training to explain why he can handle himself – it’s that kind of film); worst of all, he’s irritating. The rest of the cast shout and gurn their way to their pay cheques; Eckhart, Colm Feore, Morton and Michael C. Hall (in his debut). Uma Thurman is the love interest and her make-up artist has done a bang-up job of giving her the look of someone who’s been on a 72-hour bender. Paul Giamatti manages to be likeable in spite of being saddled with horrendous “funny” dialogue.

It’s no wonder Woo gave up on Hollywood after this. Of his six Hollywood adventures, arguably Face/Off is the only one even close to being an artistic success. Ironically, that film (flawed as it is) plays with ideas of identity and reality far more interestingly than Paycheck. It’s understandable that short stories have been a more popular source for Philip K Dick adaptations, as the subjectivity of and denseness of his novels doesn’t necessarily lend them to films (see A Scanner Darkly for a great film version but also a not very commercial one); the problem is that if they’re just a jumping off point into standard action fare they lose touch with the essence of his mind games. At one point Uma Thurman’s characters observes, “Some of the best things in life are total mistakes”, which is sadly not the case with this movie.

** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.