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Paycheck (2003)

by on 2011/11/20

“My memories are basically highlights. The stuff you erase doesn’t matter.”

* * *

Although Paycheck is based on a Philip K. Dick story nearly sixty years old now, its ideas remain as forward-looking and interesting as ever. But while it may have seemed best represented by a “puzzle” metaphor, it reminds me of nothing so much as a classic computer adventure game, one marginally more promising than successful.

Set in a future version of Seattle (cough-Vancouver-cough), the movie concerns engineer Michael Jennings (Chasing Amy’s Ben Affleck). We follow him both before and after a classified job he does for an acquaintance, Jim Rethrick (Thank You For Smoking’s Aaron Eckhart). The details of his work are kept secret by wiping his memory between contracts.

After his latest three-year stretch, he “comes to” and discovers his finances have been cleared, he’s wanted by the law, and someone has sent him an envelope containing a collection of unfamiliar knick-knacks. They mean nothing to him until he discovers their appropriateness in dangerous situations. Cigarettes distract his minders, a transit ticket allows for a quick escape, a key opens a locked door in his path, and so on.

I found its conceit compelling but — as with many high concept features — the whole falls somewhat flat in execution. I imagined how certain pieces might be (mis)used to solve non-corresponding problems. I was reminded of the “brute force” convention of using every existing inventory item in a game’s predicaments, however illogical, to reveal the programmer’s intent.

I was able to ignore my minor doubts — why would someone know to don sunglasses in a darkened smoky room? — in favour of being entertained. Yet I couldn’t shake the impression the most interesting moments had happened during the “forgotten” time. Then again I suppose I’m kind of a nut for heists; I wanted to see the trail laid.

The cast was doing their best, no doubt, and its ranks included a fair share of stalwarts, including Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Joe Morton (Terminator 2: Judgement Day), and CanCon luminaries Colm Feore (Bon Cop Bad Cop) and Callum Keith Rennie (Last Night).

I was less taken with Uma Thurman (Kill Bill), as biologist-slash-love-interest Rachel Porter. She appeared physically ill, drawn, gaunt, exhausted, and half-hearted. As we watched I said to Gru, “She’s great, but the crew must have hated her . . . wardrobe, hair, makeup, lighting, and cinematography.” I felt more concern than condemnation.

And while Paul Giamatti was typically excellent in a Wozniakian role, I had trouble accepting Ben Affleck as his peer or superior. I don’t dislike Affleck, but he simply didn’t seem comfortable with his technobabble chores. Adding a bo staff to his repertoire compounded the disparity. I only ever found him convincing when he projected puzzlement.

We in the audience, however, are rarely so lost. If the script didn’t make the pivots clear enough, the production helps it along. A thumping bass motif and freeze frames signify “clue moments” . . . a written signature, a scattering of objects, the sight of something unusual. On occasion, we are treated to brief sidebars, cut-aways to duotone montages in which memories and clues are juxtaposed to underscore their relationships.

I don’t mean to suggest these devices are de facto liabilities. At this point in his career, director John Woo is too experienced for such touches to be anything other than deliberate steps in his approach. They fit in well amongst the slow motion cranking, birds taking wing, chases, and man-to-man standoffs.

Still, even the action legend is subverted by behind-the-scenes shortfalls. The hairdressing, nearly to a person, is laughable. I thought both Affleck and Eckhart came across, er, dinkish. Grushenka amended, “They look like wedding cake figures.” From the director of The Killer and Hard Boiled, I expected balletic fight scenes. Instead, we see obvious stunt doubles, clumsy rack pulls, rough whip pans, laughable wipes, and primitive bullet-time tracking shots unacceptable in a post-Matrix era.

All of this disappointment gets filtered through intense over-lighting, I hoped it was the video print I was watching. What self-respecting director/producer would accept this bleached-out mess? Grainy, flat, and distractingly cheap, the overall effect is of a low-budget B-flick desperate to appear A-list.

Gru and I don’t always agree, but we did on this occasion. Paycheck plays like a backdoor pilot for a Nineties TV show, a competitor to Sliders or Harsh Realm. Nevertheless, I believe it gets too bad a rap. Yes, it makes more sense in theory than in practice, but I actually had more fun with it than most of Woo’s American efforts, even with its budget clearly cramping his style.

* * *

Rated PG13

119 minutes

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