Paycheck’s commentary finds John Woo defending the film that stalled his Hollywood career

Paycheck’s commentary finds John Woo defending the film that stalled his Hollywood career

In Commentary Tracks Of The Damned, we look to the commentary track to glean further insight on a failed film, be it a financial flop, a critical disappointment, or both.

Paycheck (2003)

Crimes:

  • Taking an over-familiar Philip K. Dick premise—about an everyman hero who has his memory erased and then has to figure out why people are trying to kill him—and giving it the over-familiar style of director John Woo, complete with slow-motion insert shots, mano-a-mano gunplay, a motorcycle chase, and a fluttering white dove
  • Casting a still-in-his-smug-douche-phase Ben Affleck as the cocky protagonist: an engineer who helps a company develop the technology to see the future, then mails his memory-wiped self an envelope full of everyday objects that he’ll need to stay alive when the bad guys come after him
  • Relying on stiff dialogue to connect the dots as Affleck predictably uses one item after another to get out of increasingly preposterous jams
  • Tacking on a last-act saving-the-world element that makes the movie’s climactic scenes unnecessarily heavy
  • Being so poorly received that, as of now, it’s the last Hollywood movie Woo made

Defenders: Director John Woo and screenwriter Dean Georgaris, on separate tracks

Tone of commentary: Rather smart, actually. Georgaris breaks down his script beat-by-beat, explaining his storytelling decisions and describing what got changed during filming, always praising Woo for doing with “three glances and one line” what he tried to do with whole pages of dialogue in his original screenplay. As for Woo, he gushes over what he calls his most “old Hollywood” movie, with its lush John Powell score and romantic moments meant to make everything “more sexy.”

What went wrong: Georgaris doesn’t have anything critical to say, instead noting the changes that he feels improved the film, from Woo’s use of reflections as a visual motif to his girlfriend’s suggestion that the behavior of Affleck’s love interest, Uma Thurman, wasn’t written believably. Woo, though, is much more measured in his comments, beginning with his admission that he’s never read any Philip K. Dick, and doesn’t generally care for science fiction. (“I don’t have that kind of imagination,” he admits. “Too cold for me… Not enough hope.”) So Woo decided to make his kind of movie, even if that meant changing stunts on the fly, as was the case with one admittedly cool scene that has Affleck’s character dodging between two buses in a single shot. “I know I drive my crew crazy sometimes, but they all love it,” Woo insists, adding, “I trust my instincts.”

Woo also confesses that he’s “never owned a car, never rode a motorcycle,” which is why he tends to use Western horse-chases as his models for shooting modern vehicle-chases in his movies. He says that after so many years of coming up with spectacular action climaxes, he finds it hard to think of new ones, which partly explains why Paycheck’s big finish is so flat. (Also, though it’s hard to tell with Woo’s heavily accented English, it sounds like he says that the movie’s big botanical lab set “looks like a Discovery Store,” which it definitely does, even if Woo never actually said that.) Mostly though, Woo asks listeners to read between the lines when he talks about how Hollywood is full of hard-working, talented people, but is also a place where every element of a movie is subject to a meeting with the studio’s marketing and research teams. “In Hong Kong, we only need one meeting,” Woo sighs. “It’s a different kind of energy.”

Comments on the cast: Both Woo and Georgaris rightfully heap praise on Paul Giamatti, who plays Affleck’s friend and mind-wipe technician, and has the thankless task of being funny and fascinating while mostly delivering exposition. Woo is also high on Affleck, though he admits he originally had Matt Damon in mind for the lead. When Damon didn’t want to play a part that was essentially a variation on Jason Bourne, he suggested Affleck, whom Woo found to have great charisma, while being humble and funny at the same time. (“He makes me feel happy,” Woo says.)

Inevitable dash of pretension: Woo and Georgaris are less pretentious than they are upfront about their influences and intentions. The director cites the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma as inspirations for the style he attempted to bring to the project, and says that he thought of his actors as classic Hollywood types, with Affleck as his Cary Grant and FBI agent Michael C. Hall as his Lee Marvin. Woo also says that he copied the “mind-erasing” effect from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, borrowed from the French New Wave in his use of romantic music, and used Citizen Kane as a reference for the office sets, which are intended to dwarf their inhabitants. (Never let it be said that Woo lacked for ambition on this project.) As for Georgaris, he’s very specific about the effects he was going for, as when he explains his thinking behind an early scene where the audience sees Affleck get his memory wiped right when he’s about to have sex. “You think you’re about to watch some hot, steamy love,” Georgaris says, “And then it gets frozen and erased right in front of you, leaving you wanting.”

Commentary in a nutshell: Woo, endearingly copping to repeating himself: “When I shot this film, I really didn’t want to use my trademark Mexican Standoff. It was all because of Ben Affleck. He was begging me to have that moment. He was begging me to let him hold a gun, pointing to a guy, just like what I did in The Killer or Hard Boiled. He said that he was a big fan of my movies and he had kept The Killer and Hard Boiled posters in his room. Whenever he looked at those posters, he was always dreaming to have that moment in one of his films. I couldn’t argue with him. He had so much fun. He was happy as a bird.”

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