Sometimes good films are the result of unusual pairings. In the case of the sci-fi thriller Paycheck (2004), the duo in question is science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo. Among the most prolific and admired writers in the sci-fi genre, Dick's influence continues to grow, despite his death in 1982. Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report are all Dick adaptations, and one can only suspect Hollywood scribes will continue to mine his high-concept, future-shock landscapes for more material. After relocating to the American film industry in the 1990s, Woo's reputation allowed him to fetch big budgets and bigger personalities, with folks like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Nicolas Cage benefiting from the director's signature stylistics. And with Paycheck, Woo once again earns his A-list players. Ben Affleck stars as Michael Jennings, a computer engineer who makes his living in the legally nebulous world of "reverse engineering" fundamentally, corporations are not allowed to deconstruct patent-protected technologies, but they can hire intermediaries, who then dissect protected technologies in "clean" environments and then deliver their results to their benefactors, who remain clear of legal gray areas. Jennings does this sort of thing regularly for Allcom corporate head James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), after which he allows his memory to be wiped. "It's a good life," Jennings remarks to his colleague Shorty (Paul Giamatti), noting that he only remembers sun-drenched European vacations rather than living for two months at a time in an isolated clean-room. But Rethrick has an entirely new offer for Jennings go under for three years for an extensive project, after which he will be paid nearly $100 million. Jennings accepts, but after the job is complete he discovers that he forfeited his paycheck, leaving himself nothing but an envelope full of innocuous items. It doesn't make sense, until the FBI arrests Jennings and accuses him of compromising military technology. Making his escape, Jennings soon realizes the items he's left for himself in the envelope all serve specific purposes. He has, in fact, somehow seen the future and left himself a puzzle to solve in his amnesia-stricken past a puzzle that can only be completed with the help of fellow Allcom employee Dr. Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman).
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The fun blend of heady Philip K. Dick sci-fi and John Woo action make Paycheck an entertaining, if occasionally lightweight, spin. But there is a third auteur in the mix Woo may be essaying the PKD universe for a bit of high-concept suspense, but this clearly also is a director's homage to Hitchcock, and specifically North By Northwest (1959). The score is credited to three composers, but the first half of the film has an orchestral quality that recalls the great works of Bernard Herrmann, who famously scored some of Hitchcock's best works and helped lend North By Northwest a lot of its pulse-pounding entertainment value. The script's broad outline also follows a Hitchcockian theme, with an innocent man stripped of his identity, accused of a crime, and forced to elude the authorities while single-handedly unraveling a mystery that's turned his entire world upside down. Well, not entirely single-handedly Uma Thurman plays the Hitchcock blonde in this incarnation, holding valuable information that guides our hero's quest. And if Ben Affleck isn't exactly Cary Grant, he's well used here. For true Hitch buffs, the scene in the train station is not to be missed: A boy with a balloon points a toy gun at an assassin and says "Gotcha!" before the helium is burst with a single bullet the same thing happens to the predatory Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951), who replies to a little tyke's "Bang-bang!" by jabbing the boy's balloon with a lit cigarette. Paramount's DVD release of Paycheck features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that shakes the speakers when it counts. Supplements include two occasionally sparse audio commentaries, one from director Woo and the other from screenwriter Dean Deorgaris, the featurettes "Paycheck: Designing the Future" (18 min.) and "Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck" (16 min.), six deleted and alternate scenes, an alternate ending (2 min.), and a previews reel (8 min.). Keep-case.