Paycheck (6/10)

Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley

In 1941, in his song, Let’s Not Talk About Love, Cole Porter asked us to

            Try to picture Paramount minus Bob Hope.

Well, Bob Hope is gone and, if we judge by Paycheck the picture one gets of Paramount “minus Bob Hope” is not pretty.

In Paycheck Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a reverse engineer who allows his brain to be erased for periods of two months periodically, bartering what he discovers (and then forgets) about other companies’ products to his employer for large paychecks. Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) is his boss who offers him an eight-figure paycheck to have his brain erased for three years, which Michael accepts. When he’s brought out of it, however, he not only doesn’t have the 8-digit check, but, in addition, people are trying to kill him.

This could have been a terrific movie. Unfortunately, Paramount and Director John Woo (who was responsible for the lamentable Windtalkers), ruined it by prolific special effects.  In 1968 Peter Yates created the car chase for Bullitt. In Bullitt, however, there were only two cars, the one driven by Steve McQueen, and the one chasing him, and the chase was so realistic it became a cinematic classic. Unfortunately, it created a legion of imitators, all of whom went one step further to try to top it. Alas, none did, and now the car chases are so absurd they are not credible and this lack of credibility robs them of involvement and interest. And that’s the way to describe the car chase in Paycheck. Michael and his girl friend, Rachel (Uma Thurman) are on a motorcycle chased by cars and helicopters. It goes on for what seems like forever. There’s one impossible maneuver after another. The bad guys do incredibly stupid things to cause their cars to explode and turn over and burst into fire and all sorts of other terrible calamities. Naturally, Michael and Rachel are the only ones who survive and get away.

To make matters worse there are the scenes of guns firing without hitting anything that have become de rigueur for the vacuous filmmaker, which apparently is what Paramount has become minus Bob Hope.

What’s sad is that the story is pretty good and this could have been a very good chase film, with Michael and Rachel trying to get away from Rethrick and his goons and destroy the McGuffin Michael built during his three years, a machine that tells the future, before Rethrick and the FBI can get it. But Paramount apparently didn’t have the confidence in the story or its screenwriters or director to deliver a good, script-based film. No, they felt that they had to make another James Bond-like film, full of “action” and special effects but devoid of dialogue.

Don’t believe me? Don’t think that nobody at Paramount cares about the written word? Well, lend an ear to this dialogue. At one point Rachel asks Michael, “If you knew the future for you and I, would you have gone ahead?” Rachel is not just highly educated, she’s a Ph.D.! She went through, what, 20 years of education? And she doesn’t know even the basic proper English? She doesn’t know enough that “for” is a preposition and it takes the objective case, in this instance, “me”, instead of the nominative case, “I?” Would she say, “If you knew the future for I, would you have gone ahead?” I hope not. Paramount commissioned an illiterate screenwriter to write this ungrammatical sentence? The Director didn’t catch it? Nobody saw it in dailies? Neither Affleck, to whom it was said (and who has a screenwriting Oscar) nor Thurman, who said it, questioned it? There was nobody else in the cast or crew or at the studio who thought this sounded wrong? Well, it’s understandable. Paramount, and all of the major studios, are so caught up in special effects that they don’t pay attention to the dialogue. Not in your wildest dreams could dialogue-driven films like All About Eve or Sweet Smell of Success be made today by a major studio. They’re too literate, too intelligent, and too devoid of special effects to be given even a second look. And that’s a shame.

This would have been a very good movie if Paramount had just dumped all the “action” and special effects with which they apparently fell in love. But it’s full of things exploding and ridiculous fights and chases. These greatly detract from the film. The result is an enjoyable film that will keep you awake and involved, but not nearly as good as it could have been.

December 27, 2003

The End