See also: The Bourne Identity
British composer John Powell first worked with director John Woo on the second best science fiction action movie of the 1990's: Face/Off (1997). (The first, and surely this doesn't even need saying, is Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)). Powell delivered a score which accentuated the emotional level of the superficially ludicrous on-screen drama, helping elevate Woo's finest hyperkinetic maelstrom to heights of operatic grandeur and exhilaration lesser action flicks never imagine exist. Sadly since then Woo has offered the dreadful Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), a film almost entirely devoid of plot, sense or, in pandering to the PG13 rating in the US, the balletic bloodletting which infuses all his best work, and the rather better Windtalkers (2002). However, Woo's return to science fiction action, and a Philip K Dick adaptation at that, reuniting him with John Powell, seemed something to really get excited about.
Unfortunately Woo has gone on record as saying he doesn't really like SF, and not only stripped down the Sfnal elements of the story, but rendered them inconsistent and largely nonsensical. While the film presents a couple of good action set-pieces it is once again hamstrung by the dreaded PG13 rating. Hopefully one day soon Hollywood will realise forcing John Woo to deliver PG13 rated films would be like asking Busby Berkeley to drop the dancing.
So, with a deeply compromised film on the screen the best thing by far to come out high-tec chase thriller Paycheck is John Powell's superb score. Which rather surprises me, because not so long ago I gave a very dismissive review to Powell's score for high-tec chase thriller The Bourne Identity (2002). A film which coincidentally or not starred Matt Damon, sometime best-buddy of Paycheck's leading man, Ben Affleck. Powell's tuneless techno-ethnic score was clearly the worst thing about The Bourne Identity, yet here working in parallel (in both thrillers the protagonist is even a man who has lost his memory) he has delivered the most rewarding new soundtrack in some time.
Yes, the techno, or at least ambient-dance elements remain. But here they are very much sublimated to a richly conceived orchestral score which impresses far more than David Arnold's work on the last two James Bond movies, and surely establishes Powell as the prime choice to replace Arnold on the 007 franchise – that is if anyone is paying attention at Bond HQ. Suffice to say, anyone who likes Arnold's Bond music, or rather better still, Don Davis & Juno Reactor's techno-orchestral fusions for The Matrix trilogy will love this.
The first thing that delights about Powell's Paycheck is its focused precision. The sound is a model of clarity. The instruments placed accurately in a very well defined soundfield. Even when a lot is going on the music is always tightly controlled and spacious in a way which one might consider derived from neo-classicism. Compared to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach of many modern actions scores Paycheck is almost literally a breath of fresh air amid the relentless, tedious, all pervasive bombast.
There are essentially three moods to the score. Fatalistic melancholy, which often comes in distinctly neo-classical mode with formal string writing and introspective piano, all culminating in the final string quartet cue of 'Rachel's Party'. Growing unease and rising suspense, characterised by melodic yet angular orchestral string writing and pulsating but never overbearing electronics, as introduced in the 'Main Title' and featured in many cues throughout the album. And finally, all out action, driven by bold rhythms which combine electronic and acoustic percussion, and topped by some of the most thrilling brass playing on a soundtrack you are likely to hear this year. The cue 'Hog Chase Part 1' is the single most exhilarating new film cue I have heard since parts of Don Davis' The Matrix Revolutions. '… Part 2' isn't far behind, while the extensive 'Future Tense' and 'Fait Accompli' are both rousing blends of suspense and blistering action.
An action score with intelligence, taste, furious excitement and heart, John Powell's Paycheck is deserving of a classic thriller and is surely one of the finest things the composer has done to date. My deputy editor's copy has rarely been out of his CD player in recent weeks, and I can happily say the same.
Soundtrack of the month, no question about it.