Monday, December 22, 2003

Finest Worksong

The immediate post-screening time can be the most sensitive when trying to formulate an opinion on what you've just seen. A week ago I saw PAYCHECK, the latest Hollywood picture from Hong Kong action auteur John Woo. The publicist was sure to make the three of us in attendance aware that while it wasn't the final version--the first reel looked like pixellated Avid output, music wasn't finished, and end credits were missing--the content would not be changed in the release prints. Not a big deal, although I'm not crazy about seeing works in progress. Anyway, I thought it was a serviceable sci-fi action film. Not among Woo's best but entertaining enough, even if the plot is overexplained numerous times. I don't recall if I was on the fence or leaning favorably toward the film as I walked out of the theater. Regardless, the last thing I needed was to hear the negative comments of others. Which is exactly what caught my ears.

For me, there's a certain amount of "gut decision" involved, especially with those films bordering on a mixed or positive review. To have this ephemeral feeling interfered with makes evaluating all the more difficult. When it leads you to question your initial assessment, everything gets thrown out of whack.

This explanation is a roundabout way of saying that I saw it again tonight. I would have rather spent the evening doing other things, but I wanted to be assured in my stance, whatever it turned out to be.

PAYCHECK (John Woo, 2003) (Marcus Crosswoods, 12/22/03) Grade: B-

In PAYCHECK Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a hired gun whose services don't come cheaply for him or his clients. Solitarily confined while he reverse engineers and improves upon competitor technologies, Michael earns a fat paycheck in the end but at the expense of his memory. His employers are willing to pay top dollar so he can help them obliterate the competition, but they want to ensure he knows nothing of his involvement. Once the job is done, Michael's memory is wiped clean back to the point when he started. How's that for a non-disclosure agreement?

Michael doesn't consider the erasures to be significant since the situation allows him to use the money to create a memory highlight reel. He gets to enjoy unforgettable experiences and not have his memory clogged with the mundane. College buddy and tech firm impresario Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) proposes a job that will pay Michael a sum beyond his wildest dreams. He would never need to work again, but with great opportunity comes great risk. Instead of being withdrawn from society for a couple months, the assignment could last three years.

The reward is too great for Michael to turn down, and three years later, it initially appears to have been worth it. $92 million in Allcom stock will do that. A visit to his accountant quickly disabuses him of his confidence that he made the right decision, though. A few weeks before the task was completed he waived the stock so he could mail himself an envelope of twenty common items. Naturally, Michael has no memory of this. Why would he give up all that money in exchange fora paperclip, hairspray, and a pack of cigarettes, among other things? Michael struggles to understand, but a brush with the FBI and his subsequent escape, aided by the items, tip him off. He left himself clues to remember what he did and why he is marked for death.

Michael's search for an answer slowly leads him to the realization that he constructed a machine capable of seeing the future, a high tech crystal ball. Armed with this revelation, the problem remains that he doesn't know what he is supposed to do.

PAYCHECK plays as a high concept hybrid of MINORITY REPORT and MEMENTO, although it never reaches the heights of those films. (MINORITY REPORT and PAYCHECK are based on Philip K. Dick short stories, which accounts for the resmblances. Unlike Guy Pearce's illustrated man in MEMENTO, Affleck has no problems with his short term memory.) This is a B-movie through and through, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly at a time in the release schedule when nearly every film comes with the portentous weight of awards consideration. Much pleasure derives from seeing how the innocuous items were perfectly selected for the appropriate circumstances. While this is far from Woo's best film, Hong Kong or American, his energetic style keeps PAYCHECK humming along as it whizzes past the multiple holes in the screenplay. Of course it's all absurd and familiar, but Woo's operatic treatment of action scenes lays those criticisms aside. A breakneck chase sequence featuring Michael and biologist girlfriend Rachel (Uma Thurman) on a motorcycle is the film's centerpiece. One set of bad guys in cars pursue them through big metal tubes while the FBI hovers over the scene in a helicopter.

Dean Georgaris' screenplay is the film's weakest link. Characters repeatedly spell out what everything means and what they are going to do, just in case you were having trouble following. Thurman must have been attracted to the forgettable girlfriend role solely for the paycheck because she serves merely as an exposition explication device. Moreover, Rachel shouldn't be into the story if Michael is not supposed to have contact with the outside during his time on the project. Why bother wiping his memory if he can blab it all to his girlfriend? On top of all this, in spite of Georgaris' economy with images and plot points, every single one must come full circle to complete the protracted climax. Even with no flab, PAYCHECK feels bloated in the end.

Affleck comes across as flat and disinterested early on, but like a dispassionate Keanu Reeves as Neo in THE MATRIX and its sequels, these qualities work for his character. Paul Giamatti, playing the technician who zaps Michael's memories, is fun as the comic relief. His dishevelled appearance reminds us of his sterling performance as Harvey Pekar in AMERICAN SPLENDOR, someone who wouldn't have any part of dissolving life's routine and ordinary moments.

PAYCHECK'S set-up presents a tantalizing question. Would you be willing to trade three years of memories, time filled with work and work alone, for the promise that you would earn enough to fulfill your every wish and whim? The film discards serious discussion for Mexican standoffs and action scenes, trading the possibility of complex rewards for simple pleasures. Maybe the best choices weren't made in the filmmaking--it doesn't mean we can't kick back and enjoy the result.

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