"I take orders from the Octoboss."


tn_paycheckwoozone?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.

mp_paycheckAll 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.

This entry was posted on Sunday, February 24th, 2013 at 1:10 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Paycheck”

  1. I actually had interest in seeing this when it first came out because of the Philip K. Dick, but it got bad reviews so I stayed away

    I’ve always found it very heartwarming in a way how an author as crazy and weird as Philip K. Dick is loved by Hollywood

  2. This script was one of the hottest in Hollywood. Dean Georgaris was the It writer in town. He was supposed to write MI3, Tomb Raider 2, and direct Life of Pi. His asking price was a million bucks. Then I read it. Even now a few of my friends who were in studio development around the time still say Woo fucked a great screenplay up. Woo made a cheap and junky movie. But it’s basically the same script. Vern’s summation of : “It’s one of those movies that’s kinda based on smart ideas but handled pretty dumb.” is spot on. I wish it was good but everything from the boring locations to Uma’s terrible haircut scream of lame mediocrity.

  3. I’d rate this above Woo’s horrid TV work. It’s not particularly great like his Hong Kong films, or even his best Hollywood accomplishments either. It sits comfortable with the mediocrity of WINDTALKERS. Like that – and like Vern said – it seemed like a bunch of good ideas handled poorly.

    But unlike WINDTALKERS which was Woo’s passion project, I don’t think Woo gave a shit on any level. He must have burned out with the Hollywood system at that point. Even his typical flourishes like the dove or the Mexican standoff feel out of place and somewhat unintentionally hilarious. I think if he have had the passion and they would have rewritten the script to polish out some of the bad parts, I think this could have been a classic.

    Right now, it’s just a pretty solid if dumb sci-fi actioner. Not great, and not terrible. Painfully in the middle. But it was kind of sad epitaph to John Woo’s Hollywood career.

  4. I’m a fan of PKD’s writing, so I try to see the adaptations of his work, even if they look thoroughly mediocre. I’ve seen the majority of Paycheck on television, but I don’t think I’ve watched it all the way through from beginning to end in a single sitting. I watched the last half one day and then the first half maybe six months later. Maybe I was just trying to imbue my viewing experience with the same themes as the movie, being able to tell what happens in the future and all that.

  5. I also always felt this one seemed like TOTAL RECAL light, even more so than THE 6TH DAY. However, I would say THE 6TH DAY is more enjoyable.

  6. Woo originally wanted Matt Damon but Damon didn’t want to do another amnesia movie so he suggested Affleck.

  7. But then Matt Damon made two more Bourne movies. I guess amnesia is the keyword here allright…

  8. I remember when this movie came out and critics were falling all over themselves to make the “John Woo’s cashing a PAYCHECK” joke. Can’t blame Vern for succumbing to temptation, but at least it was a small aside and not the cornerstone of the review. Anyway, I know I’ve seen this movie but I must be a victim of a PAYCHECK-like memory experiment because I can’t remember a fucking thing about it. Even Vern’s little envelope of memorable movie moments isn’t enough to jog my memory. Oh well.

    What DTV movies did Woo do? BLACKJACK? I love that movie. I remember blindly renting the tape (back when they had VHS tapes and video stores from which to rent them) because it has John Woo’s name on it and then wondering how the hell nobody had heard of it. There was also that boring Canadian TV remake of ONCE OF A THIEF.

  9. I actually kind of liked this movie, in a cheesy corporate product “Lockout” kind of way. Seeing it didn’t change my life one little bit, but I didn’t hate myself afterward.

  10. CrustaceanHate – Woo also directed the absolutely horrendous Lost in Space remake pilot. I don’t know if it ever aired as a TV movie, or if everyone involve wanted to bury it deep and forget it ever existed. At one point a screener version with unfinished effects was up on Youtube.

    All the Woo’s TV efforts happened when TV was filled with forgettable syndicated schlock with low budgets, bad production values and disposable storytelling. Not that those things don’t exist now, but I wonder if Woo would have excelled in today’s environment where cable channels want to tread more mature and cinematic waters. I for one would be intrigued to watch a cable show with Woo’s sense of visual style and knack for operatic melodrama. And guns, slow-motion and gloriously excessive squib work.

  11. The only real problem with the casting is that this should obviously be a Nic Cage movie.


  12. I was a huge fan of Woo, going back to high school, scouring Asian grocery stores that rented VHS to find The Killer and Bullet in the Head, etc…. and I absolutely love Paycheck. I don’t think Woo was half-assing anything at all, anymore than Scorsese was half-assing Hugo or Wes Anderson was “half-assing” Fantastic Mr. Fox. He’s dabbling in a different, broader-appeal genre, and who cares if the body count is lower and it’s PG-13? The action scenes are still crisp and as Vern mentioned, highly rewindable. It also doesn’t seem as long and bloated as Face/Off or as aggressively stupid as Broken Arrow.

    I do like how “meathead”y Affleck plays it. He’s practically channelling Arnold in the early stick-fight training scene where he pretends to choke Giamatti. I like how him and Eckhart actually seemed like good, douchey friends before they turn enemies (they have a chemistry sorely missing from the similar Slater/Travolta dynamic in Broken Arrow). I like the sly commentary on the Bush Gulf War II and the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecies.

    But mostly I love the little discussed “Mr. Holland’s Opus”-esque theme – that life happens when you’re busy making other plans- that the day-in, day-out, punch the clock work shit that we all hate, that we would gladly have purged from our memories, is actually home to some of our best experiences and our best relationships. It’s powerful stuff and the last thing I expected from this movie.

  13. HT: Thanks for letting me know about that LOST IN SPACE reboot. I never knew they got as far as filming a pilot! I watched it on youtube and yeah, not good. The family drama was pretty uninspired and clumsy but I laughed pretty hard when the cheesy-looking aliens showed up, so it wasn’t a complete wash. Competently directed with some gentle Woo touches to the action scenes; lots of sparky explosions and slow motion. Nice sets, looked pretty expensive.

    I’d love to see a “heroic bloodshed” TV show, but sadly Woo’s power has been diluted by decades of imitation. All of his signature touches have become hokey action cliches. It’s a pity, because I think modern action could use more bad-ass melodrama. I love it when action films get all emotional and homoerotic and shit. Makes me shed the manliest of tears.

  14. I saw PAYCHECK on VHS; THE MATRIX and the SOUTH PARK movie too, even the American version of THE RING (renting THE RING on DVD would just be wrong). I was a late adopter of DVDs. There was just so much Asian film available only on VHS (most of it pirated). The tipping point came when whole seasons of television shows started coming out on DVD.

    The video store I visit still has all their tapes in the basement. You have to ask them to go down and get one. One day I’m sure I’ll see UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD on DVD or online and be surprised that the greenish bar of fuzz along the bottom of the screen isn’t an aesthetic choice.

  15. I bought my first DVD player back in 2000. It was one of the first discount ones, with 399 €. (The money was originally for my driver’s licence.) I bought my last VHS around 2003 (Tremors!). Don’t know when I stopped renting in that format, but it was maybe around the same time. (Previously there were way still way too many movies that were only available on tape.) I gave up VHS completely back in 2007, when I bought my first DVD/HDD recorder and therefore could record shit from TV on DVDs from then on.

  16. I gave up on VHS around 2001 I think, the last movies I remember watching on VHS were Joyride and Jeepers Creepers

    at the time the only dvd player my family had was my PS2, which we briefly hooked up in the living room so we could all watch Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon on dvd, then in Christmas of 2001 we got a regular dvd player and then that was it for VHS

  17. The Original... Paul

    February 26th, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    I tried to watch this one once. Gave up after about half an hour. I don’t know if it gets better after that, but I wasn’t interested in sticking around to find out. Just so much of nothing.

  18. I´ll never give up on the VHS. There is nothing like watching a good ol Troma movie on VHS late at night with a few friends. The flickering images and the blurry picture creates the homevideo equivelent of grindhouse cinema.

  19. I still have a VCR in the house, sometimes I do actually think about hooking it up to my old TV and watching some of the old VHS I still have just for shits and giggles, for example, it would be interesting to watch my old Jurassic Park tape (which I still have) and then watch it on blu ray on my HDtv, that would be a really good way to see how far we’ve come huh?

    then I remember I have about a million other things I could occupy my time with that wouldn’t involve the probably pain in the ass process of hooking one of those up, ah well, maybe one day…..

    I do like though how there’s been a strange revival of interest in the format, I myself always get nostalgic when I see VHS tapes of movies at an antique store or wherever (one time just a few years back my aunt and uncle stayed at a vacation home that had a stash of a bunch of VHS tapes), there’s something about them that just instantly bring me back to the 90’s, if I had the money and (more importantly) the space I’d probably collect them just because

  20. Now that you mention it, I still have at least one working VCR in my house too and used it recently to transfer some home videos from my cousin to DVD. I also plan to do that with some of ye olde Disney VHS that I got (Because the DVD releases are often awful, with new dubbings or edits to get an even lower rating.) and maybe my TV recording of THE SEARCH FOR ONE-EYE JIMMY. (I doubt that the movie will ever be released on DVD and or shown again on TV over here.)

  21. I double checked and yup, I still got a VCR, dunno if I have all the cords for it though

  22. Still got my VCR hooked up. How else am I going to watch my VHS copy of GYMKATA?

  23. GYMKATA is on dvd though

    it’s also by far the most underrated of those “so bad, they’re good” movies, why it’s not quite as well known as Troll 2 and The Room is beyond me

  24. I know GYMKATA is on DVD, but it just feels right to watch it on a VHS tape in a battered, ex-rental clamshell that I picked up from a flea market for $2.

  25. Put any dumb sci-fi concept in a movie and I’m bound to not-hate-it (I still don’t think TOTAL RECALL REMAKE is nearly as horrid as most critics) and this is no exception.

    It’s forgettable but not bad. It was, as you say, the kind of movie where it should’ve worked on paper but just never came together.

  26. I’ve read a couple of good reviews for WELCOME TO THE PUNCH, which say has a bit of a John Woo Heroic Bloodshed influence to it:

  27. Turns out the last movie I watched on VHS was probably the remake of THIRTEEN GHOSTS.

    Or current release anyway, because I also gave my Star Wars VHS tapes one last watch around the time of ATTACK OF THE CLONES.

    The point is, 2002 was the year VHS died for me.

  28. I know everybody here is on Raimi mode right now, but for the past weeks I have been in the Woo Zone. Been watching this movie for the first time tonight and it didn’t help to wait almost 20 years and to go in with low expectations. This was lame from start to finish.

    Anyways, keep up the good work Vern! Love your site and writing for many years!

  29. Watched this fairly recent and it reminded me a little of Bulletproof Monk. I think both John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat wanted to be more than the ‘running around firing two guns at once’ guys, which is understandable, but it resulted in some terribly generic action movies. Maybe I’m being unfair to Windtalkers…

    I am not being unfair at all to Dragonball Evolution.

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