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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

I think my mother put a curse on us.

Hereditary (2018)
(SPOILERS) Well, the Hereditary trailer's a very fine trailer, there's no doubt about that. The movie as a whole? Ari Aster's debut follows in the line of a number of recent lauded-to-the-heavens (or hells) horror movies that haven't quite lived up to their hype (The Babadook, for example). In Hereditary's case, there’s no doubting Ari Aster's talent as a director. Instead, I'd question his aptitude for horror.

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

Reindeer-goat cheese pizza?

Hudson Hawk (1991)
A movie star vanity project going down in flames is usually met with open delight from press and critics alike. Even fans of the star can nurse secret disappointment that they were failed on this occasion. But, never mind, soon they will return to something safe and certain. Sometimes the vehicle is the result of a major star attaching themselves to a project where they are handed too much creative control, where costs spiral and everyone ends up wet (Waterworld, The Postman, Ishtar). In other cases, they bring to screen a passion project that is met with derision (Battlefield Earth). Hudson Hawk was a character created by Bruce Willis, about whom Willis suddenly had the post-Die Hard clout to make a feature.

I love the combination of Gummi Bears and meat.

Despicable Me 3 (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Illumination formula is at least reliable, consistently and comfortably crowd-pleasing where DreamWorks often seems faintly desperate (because they are – who's their distributor this week?) Despicable Me 3 ploughs the same cosy, affirmative furrow as its wholly safe predecessor. When I saw Despicable Me 2, I mentioned that it reminded me of Shrek 2 in its attempt to continue a story that was complete in itself. Despicable Me 3 is similarly redundant, suggesting the most airless of brainstorming sessions – Gru has the kids, the wife, the job, how about now he gets a sibling? – although this time I was put in mind of the Lethal Weapon sequels and their ability to continue churning out/expanding on the family vibe long after Riggs had become a (relatively) well-adjusted member of society.

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway)
Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders Carry On, Jeeves but this time blends it with a tale from The Inimitable Jeeves for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.