Guns and Doves Episode II: 'Paycheck' Review
A film that’s become something of a cult classic for action fans in recent years, this week’s feature is quite the blast from the past starring Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, and Aaron Eckhart and is directed by everyone’s favorite dove-enthusiast, John Woo. Paycheck is, however, unique as an action film in that it’s based on a short story by acclaimed science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick whose genius inspired other renowned creative adaptations such as Blade Runner and Minority Report. Lacking the cinematic elegance of the former and the, at first enticing vision of an almost-idyllic future of the latter, Paycheck ultimately amounts to a film that satisfies summer blockbuster action expectations adequately and is distinguished from Woo’s most average Hollywood ventures only through its creative premise and effective set-up.
Following the work life of computer genius Jennings (Affleck), Paycheck is a story that, like so many other Phillip K. Dick stories, poses exciting yet morbid philosophical and moral questions. In exchange for having his memory wiped after completing a job for the world’s biggest software companies, Jennings is paid an immense wage per job. Seeing as how his unparalleled talent in the field is extremely sought after, the memory wiping ensures that Jennings can never sell corporate secrets to competitors yet still offer his own personal services. Problem is, however, that pretty much the only thing Jennings does with his time is work; an obsession that results in his memories consisting of only the brief vacations he takes now and again.
Enter billionaire mogul Rethrick (Eckhart), a man who offers Jennings an enormous salary in exchange for three years of his life spent working in a company bunker dedicated to a very specific, and highly classified project. Ever the industrious freelancer, Jennings agrees to the proposal only to find himself three years later broke, with a manila envelope containing a host of miscellaneous objects, a(n) (ex?) girlfriend who claims to have been in a relationship for those three years, and the target of a slew of interminable assassination attempts.
If one digs deep enough – or reads the excellent original short story by Dick himself – it’s clear to see how Jennings’ life, one defined by brief moments of relaxation surrounded by vast empty spaces of unhappy or totally absent memories, is a reflection of the modern worker. Having your memory wiped after each task is no different than repressing memories of monotonous work day after day until the only defining moments in your life are the small, fleeting ones where you’re actually happy for once. Although Affleck’s characteristic Affleck demeanor hints to this message and the film itself tries, at least in the beginning, to speak to something greater than Woo’s gun-fu ambitions, the message is ultimately lost and muddled by the chaotic second and third acts of the film. Brimming with – admittedly satisfying – adrenaline-fueled action sequences, explosive car chases, discordant shootouts – oh, and doves, the majority of the latter portions of the film are just as John Woo as you’d expect. It's fun, it's bombastic, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen if you’ve seen just about any 2000’s Woo film.
It’s a shame such a compelling premise was convoluted by Woo’s shortsighted vision. It might seem I’m being a tad too harsh on Woo as a director, but it’s a recurring theme with him to muddle story in favor of expensive action. As a director who made a fair bit of money for studios with his excellently-choreographed sequences and accessible films, he’s free to do that with his own original screenplays but, adapting a creative and revered work of fiction in order to eventually throw away any shreds of artistic nuance from the final product and ultimately pervert the image of the original work is infuriating, as a science fiction fan, to say the least. I love my guns and doves as much as the next guy but if you’re going to adapt a story defined by its narrative and not by its explicit gunpowder-infused prose, at least do right by the author.
Considering the level of ill-advised adaptational perversion rife within the film, the other elements of the film seem secondary in priority when it comes to what’s wrong with this movie. But, for all the hate Affleck gets for his Bostonian drawl or carbon copy stoicism across multiple works, he’s actually a highlight of this film. Alongside action veteran Uma Thurman and the consistently solid Paul Giamatti, Affleck remains the film’s much-needed anchor. Constantly befuddled but still charming, Affleck handles his cookie-cutter “good guy” role, as well as anyone, could; his predictability is a welcome comfort even in the derivative mess that is Paycheck because it gives audience’s a familiar base upon which to observe the rest of the film’s anarchic latter two-thirds.
Is John Woo a bad director? No. Is Paycheck a wholly bad action movie? Certainly not. Did John Woo need to “adapt” Phillip K. Dick’s original short story to make another semi-enjoyable John Woo movie? Hell no. But he did, and this is what we’re left with. It’s a decent watch yeah, but if you’re going to do John Woo, the answer is always Broken Arrow. Always.