Remember when John Woo did a science fictional movie a while back that everybody said was shitty? This was after we’d all kind of given up on him, so I never saw it. Until now.
Ben Affleck, the director of ARGO, stars as Michael Jennings, an amoral engineering genius of a futurist Seattle, some time after the near-future one in STEALTH. (In the future the borders of Seattle will be stretched so far that they will include Vancouver, BC, which is all we see in this movie other than one helicopter shot over Seattle Center). His introduction is funny because he gets to do a John Woo slo-mo strut toward the camera wearing shades (it’s important to the plot that he’s finicky about sunglasses) and, uh, holding a computer monitor under his arm.
His job is to go into a locked laboratory for a few weeks, take the thing apart and reverse engineer a knock-off for a competitor. Afterwards, the people who hired him erase his memory of that time and pay him lots of money. I guess the idea is that he can’t share the information with other companies or with the authorities.
Of course, something’s gotta go wrong, because John Woo is not gonna make a movie just about an unethical guy building computer monitors. What happens is that his old rich buddy Aaron Eckhart (see, there’s your problem right there) hires him for a most unusual job: one that’s gonna take 3 years and then make him rich for life. He goes into some kind of Biodome type place and then all the sudden the job is over and he doesn’t remember what happened. Huh.
All seems fine until he meets with his lawyer and learns that he signed off on forgoing all his stock options for some reason. So he gets nothing. And the envelope full of personal items sent to him was the wrong one, it just has a bunch of crap he never saw before, like a matchbook and a can of hairspray and stuff.
This is inspired by a Philip K. Dick story and apparently this gimmick is straight out of the story. Basically he has an envelope full of what seems like the junk somebody would have in a purse, but it’s actually things he left for himself as clues and useful tools. It seems the technology he was working on had something to do with seeing into the future. He knew they would try to kill him afterwards and “he engineered his own escape” with these things that will lead him to figure out what’s going on and help him to deal with it.
By the way, we know from his place of residence that he’s into palmistry and yin yang symbols and shit. And the technology he’s working on looks like a crystal ball. I don’t know what this means. Maybe engineers are modern mystics or something. Something deep, I bet.
Anyway, he’s on the run. FBI agents (including Joe Morton and Michael C. Hall) are trying to bring him in, and Eckhart’s guys are trying to kill him. And then they’re trying to catch him when they find out their future-seeing machine needs some repairs.
Uma Thurman plays Rachel, a biologist Jennings hits on at Aaron Eckhart’s party and then falls in love with during the three year missing period. He planned for her to escape with him, but post memory-wipe he doesn’t remember her. It’s an interesting idea, going to meet someone he figures he must love, but they don’t go very deep into it. Unfortunately it’s kind of a weak role for Uma. She’s supposed to be a genius biologist, but spends most of the movie just dumbly following her boyfriend and being told what to do. She does have a way of flirtatiously joking around with him that sort of works, and she does a couple enjoyably out-of-character kicks that may or may not be related to her training for KILL BILL (volume 1 came out 2 months before this, but I’m not sure which one filmed first).
Affleck seems like more of a meathead than he should if he’s this genius engineer, but I think he’s fine in the role. The only real problem with the casting is that this should obviously be a Nic Cage movie. It’s got the big high concept and the combination of clever and dumb. A little bit of NEXT, a little NATIONAL TREASURE, a little KNOWING. But it should be a Cager, with him playing it pretty straight. He couldn’t use Woo as an excuse to go at it Castor Troy style. I think he’d really make it funnier, though with a very mild type of mega where he’s not buggin out but just getting a little too emotional about everything. I can almost picture it.
One scene that Affleck does perfectly fine making funny with his acting choices is the scene where he’s supposed to meet Rachel in a cafe, but Eckhart sends an impostor (Ivana Milicevic, IMPOSTOR) since Jennings doesn’t remember what the real one looks like. Affleck plays the entire scene with a dumb, confused look on his face.
The script is by Dean Georgaris (LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE: OF LIFE). It’s one of those movies that’s kinda based on smart ideas but handled pretty dumb. It especially feels that way in the end, which I suspect was the victim of rewrites during production. Jennings finds out that just knowing the future from using the machine will cause all the countries to have pre-emptive war against each other, a self-fulfilled prophecy of doom. So his mission is to sneak in and destroy the machine… but when he gets to it he says (in a line dubbed in post-production?) “Let’s take a look at the future before we destroy this thing.” Why would he do that?
It’s tempting to call this movie JOHN WOO’S PAYCHECK, but even though it’s watered-down Woo I can’t really think of it as a sellout on his part. It was probly a fun challenge for him to do a big dumb studio sci-fi thriller. I think he did better with it than your average for-hire hack, but obviously it doesn’t have the purity of his Hong Kong work or the unhinged melodrama (and action) of FACE/OFF.
Come to think of it it kinda feels like Diet Total Recall, just like THE 6TH DAY did. But it’s not quite anonymous studio hackwork because every once in a while there’s a little action scene and you remember, “Oh shit, John Woo is directing this!” It’s a movie that’s all about setting up things that you know will come into play later (gee, I wonder why he put an extra stamp on that envelope?) so when Affleck is showing off his leftover wooden staff skills from DAREDEVIL at the beginning you know it’s gonna come up later. Actually, it took a while to get to it, I was starting to think Woo was gonna blow it, but he doesn’t believe in blowing it even in his shitty movies.
This one’s PG-13 so it’s not trying to be HARD BOILED, but the fights are always energetic and with plenty of impact, people being thrown and smashing through things. There are Mexican standoffs. There’s a part where a flower cart rolls with Paul Giamatti running beside it to block himself from bullets. For reasons I do not at all comprehend, and out of the fuckin blue, there’s a crucial scene where a CGI dove flies in slo-mo and knocks Affleck off a cat walk.
There’s also a motorcycle-car chase that I really enjoyed, especially one move in particular. Rachel’s riding bitch with a car right on her ass, she takes off her helmet and chucks it hard at the driver, beaning him on the skull and taking him out. The shot of him getting hit is from inside his car and it convinced me a stunt man might really have done that. I rewound it a couple times to re-experience it, the sign of a great action beat. I trust Woo to come up with shit like that. And in this one the guy’s supposed to be a genius so he can come up with even weirder shit to do. Like when he ends a subway tunnel standoff by dropping the bullet cartridge out of his gun onto the third rail, causing it to explode.
(Better start building that subway system, city of Seattle. You’re behind schedule.)
PAYCHECK doesn’t seem that old, but when I was looking for the poster I noticed it said “Available on DVD and VHS this May.” So it’s kinda old. It’s funny to see these movies that take place in the near future but they were made earlier in the 2000s so when they pull out their phones they immediately out themselves as out of date. They have Segways, but not smart phones. Also, Beanie Babies are apparently still popular in the future. Or maybe they come back as a nostalgia thing.
For me I think waiting ten years was just about right. If I’d seen it at the time maybe I would’ve been sad about Woo going so far out of his Zone. A decade later I had no expectations, and I know the movie did poorly and he finally left Hollywood and made a new masterpiece with RED CLIFF. Comfortable in this knowledge of the future I was able to enjoy PAYCHECK as a dumb movie with some transcendent moments. By which I mean a part where Uma nails a motherfucker with a flying helmet.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.