Paycheck (2003)

I always believe the first take or the second take is the best take. That’s why they call me “One-take John.”
— John Woo, commentary track, Paycheck

Sometimes he was just like a kid, you know, “John, let me hold a gun.” So when he hold a gun, he just feels so satisfied, so good.
— John Woo, on Ben Affleck, “Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck

Listen, guys, a mistake has been made here.
— Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), Paycheck

“A true hero,” says John Woo on the commentary track for the Paycheck DVD, “always reaches out a helping hand to others. And he has a code of honor and loyalty… A true hero is a man who controls his own destiny.” As he’s describing this ideal, he’s watching Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) trying to avoid the violent death that has looked to be his destiny throughout the film, a shooting on a catwalk that he’s dreamed about repeatedly. And wouldn’t you know, Michael succeeds.

In premise, Paycheck is yet another filmic iteration of a Philip K. Dick memory-overhaul story. Michael is a “reverse engineer,” that is, he breaks down already-on-the-market technology, steals and retools it, then has his memory of the theft and the software re-devising wiped. He achieves this last by a process approximating a brain boil — heating of a particular lobe apparently erases a particular time, say, the past three weeks. For the Dick protagonist, messing with memory is always trouble: recall, identity, and politics are of a piece, and efforts to control of any one of these elements are sure to disrupt the other two.

Contrary to Woo’s prescription, Michael doesn’t set out to control anything: he just wants to get paid. (Of course, he will get morality, and a drive to control, and so become that “true hero”). At film’s opening, however, it’s clear that he gets paid regularly (or, as Affleck outs it in the making of documentary, “Paycheck: Designing the Future,” “He’s a guy with nothing in his life, more or less living paycheck to paycheck”). He does so with the help of lovable tech Shorty, played by Paul Giamatti, of whom screenwriter Dean Georgaris says, on his own commentary track, “One of the hallmarks of a good actor is their ability to say what’s fairly on the nose, expository dialogue and make it sound somewhat natural and interesting. I think Paul Giamatti is a perfect example of that. Having to explain that if his brain heats up too much, he’s going to be a vegetable is not exactly the most subtle moment of writing, but Paul makes it seem very natural.” (Both commentary tracks, by director and writer, tend to explicate — or less interestingly, rehearse — the plot more than discuss techniques, moralities, or

Both Michael and Shorty are employed by one heck of a villain, billionaire Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), CEO of a company called, subtly, ALLCOM. The turning point comes when Rethrick offers $92 million for an especially hazardous and lengthy gig. Returning to himself three years later, Michael is horrified to find that something has gone wrong. Not only has he lost (apparently purposefully given up) his hefty paycheck, but he’s also being hunted by the feds, in the form of Agent Dodge (Joe Morton) and Agent Klein (Michael C. Hall), as well as Rethrick’s own muscle, in the form of a snarly goon named Wolf (Colm Feore) and lackeys with varying neck sizes.

Fortunately for him, Michael has sent himself an envelope full of everyday items — keys, cigarettes, a watch, a metro card, a fortune from a Chinese cookie — that turn out to be helpful in very specific situations. While these items might represent the implausible ingenuity of sender and receiver (both versions of Michael), they certainly represent the film’s major logic hole. That is, Past Michael has stolen the technology for a future-seeing machine and, after seeing a bad future, sends forward items to help Future Michael outmaneuver the bad guys. That any of these maneuvers might change that future, and so render the entire plan void, doesn’t seem to be a factor.

Paycheck‘s lack of internal sense can be distracting: If the future changes moment by moment, then how can Michael anticipate it? And how dim are these feds anyway, smoking in interrogation rooms equipped with supersensitive smoke detectors and losing their mark in conventional city traffic even though they have surveillance helicopters churning overhead?

While it doesn’t attend to such logical details, the movie focuses on a more or less standard search for identity (though Michael technically knows who he is, he’s missing those three crucial years), plus a dollop of Woo’s well-known stylistic hallmark visuals: slow motion shooting and car-chasing, a two-gun face-off between enemies-who-might-have-been-friends, even the fluttering white dove. This last, usually deemed a sign of the director’s enthusiastic Catholicism when it shows up in his other films, here suggests a theme Paycheck doesn’t actually take up, namely, the tensions among fate, faith, and free will.

Such tensions are connected with Dick’s longstanding interest in the interplay of identity and memory (see also: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for Blade Runner), as well as some Eastern philosophical approaches to destiny (and palmistry, a reference the film makes more than once). All the hardware in Paycheck (brain boiling, chemical adjustments, the whirring future machine) is less interesting than the questions it provokes: who is the “true” Michael? The greedy cuss who takes the original assignment? Or the nicer guy who tries to save the planet? If he changes, how does he know to do it in order to survive? What compels his shift in interest?

This would be, perhaps, the “human drama” that John Woo extols (a sentiment echoed by his longtime producing partner, Terrence Chang, in “Paycheck: Designing the Future”). “I decided,” Woo says in his commentary, “to cut down 80% of the sci-fi thing, and make the film into a modern day [drama], just like I did in Face-Off.” Well, maybe not “just like.” But you might recognize the use of doubles, mirrors, and ever-mobile cameras, all Woo signatures, even when the “human story” is more or less submerged. (Agent Dodge may be the most provocative possibility for such a story, but he doesn’t have enough time on screen to develop a trajectory that might change.)

The familiarity of such devices comes up a few times in the DVD’s other extras, which include an alternate ending, six deleted or extended scenes, and a documentary, “Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck,” featuring designer Gregg Smrz, describing strategies for a series of stunts: the regular-seeming motorcycle chase, a fight in a subway station, the finale smackdown (“John had wanted everything to be realistic, no wire stunts, no CG,” says Smrz, and “We didn’t want any martial arts. Ben had just come off Daredevil and really didn’t want to be a martial artist, and John didn’t… want the kung fu look, so we tried to do an NFL-style brutality”).

For his part, Woo is (rightly, given his history) effusive in his feelings about his stunt crew, noting they “have the same qualities as ballet dancers, they’re beautiful people here. When we work together, they’re always trying to do something new… I like to see them happy, you know. And I like to show their true quality on the screen. They work like a family, and they not only care about themselves, they also care about the actors.” (Add here his respect for Thurman, fresh of Kill Bill when she came to Paycheck, and so full of gung-h about doing her own stunts.)

The film is less lively during non-stunts moments. As Michael reinvents himself and his future up as he goes along, he has help from the usual sources, including the step-ahead corporate nemeses (Rethrick and Wolf), the step-behind feds, and the briefly reappearing Shorty (it’s a good guess that this character’s part was bigger at one point, then chopped up). He also has input from The Girl, in this case, the lithe and lovely Rachel (Uma Thurman), an ostensibly brilliant biologist also working for Rethrick, whom he happens to meet before he goes into his last assignment. She reminds him of their three-year romance with a photo album and some teary blue eyes, but Michael draws a blank on how great they were together.

For the most part, however, Rachel waits for Michael to make decisions, to realize the significance of the next item in his self-addressed envelope. The film offers one other reference, and it hardly matters whether it was intentional. When Agent Dodge is picking through some post-explosion rubble, he finds a vital clue as to Michael’s scheming, and instead of delivering it to his superiors, he hides it away with a smile. For an instant, you might imagine that Joe Morton has found the Terminator’s chip again. It fits as well as any other logical leap in Paycheck.