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.

** 

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet