Paycheck: The Deluxe Edition

John Powell

" Imagine what John Powell could do if he scored a Bond picture. "

Written by [memory erased] - Review of the deluxe edition

Sci-fi thriller Paycheck sees Ben Affleck as a reverse-engineer who works on top-secret technology for shady corporate clients. In order to protect their intellectual property, he has his memory wiped upon the completion of each assignment. After accepting a highly-paid but suspicious job offer, and falling for colleague Rachel (Uma Thurman) along the way, the film cuts to the end of his assignment. But with his memory wiped and his - you guessed it, paycheck missing - it’s up to him to unravel the mystery of what he was working on and why he’s now being hunted by the FBI.

Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick - whose other works have been adapted into films such as Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report - and directed by John Woo (one of his few Hollywood films), it’s equal parts preposterous and entertaining. While the lack of chemistry between Affleck and Thurman makes it unsurprising that he forgets about her (memory wipe or not), one thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is the exciting and surprisingly intricate score by John Powell.

Powell scored his first major Hollywood film, Face/Off, also directed by Woo, in 1997. Hans Zimmer was originally approached for the assignment but recommended Powell instead, on the condition that he would step in and write the score if Powell messed it up. Thankfully, Powell didn’t mess it up and it’s presumably one of the reasons he’s gotten to where he is today. While Face/Off sounds like the many heavily synthesized Media Ventures action scores of the late 90’s, Powell managed to subsequently (and quickly) distance himself from that sound and start doing his own thing.

After a busy year writing highly-competent scores that were far beyond the films they accompanied, including Agent Cody Banks and The Italian Job remake, Paycheck was released at the back end of 2003 - Powell’s far more selective approach to projects in recent years not established at this point. While some may rally for a “quality over quantity” approach, there’s no denying that even in Powell’s busiest years, he still produced a huge amount of high quality, hugely entertaining music, with Paycheck remaining one of his best - if sometimes forgotten - scores (how meta of it).

With the recent emergence of deluxe editions for Solo and How To Train Your Dragon (arguably his two most popular scores), either Powell himself or the record labels seem to be tackling these expanded releases in a remarkably logical way, with Paycheck easily being the score next most deserving of special treatment. (Let’s hope The Bourne Supremacy and Mr. & Mrs. Smith will follow). Paycheck’s original soundtrack featured 48 minutes of music, but no less than four major action cues (over 17 minutes worth) remained absent, as well as a number of suspense and discovery cues that accompany Affleck’s character as he pieces clues together.

Like the Solo and Dragon deluxe editions, this new release contains the full, unedited score as written for the film (minus the end credits, which repeats tracks from the score). The original soundtrack included micro edits to create some streamlined album versions of cues. However, with the deluxe edition featuring the unedited score, some cues which are now extended with interesting, previously unreleased music sometimes also suffer by having the original micro edits undone (or technically, not done) here. Take for example “Twenty Items” and “Wolfe Pack” - both include new material which adds to the listening experience, but they also feature several meandering moments of suspense or repeating elements which haven’t been edited out. With these little bits of fat not trimmed, unless you’re au fait with audio editing and combine the best elements of each version while restoring the micro edits, you’ll have to make a decision of whether you prefer the original album or deluxe tracks. “Mirror Message/Imposter” is arguably the only track where the original album version remains superior, with no meaningful new material added on the deluxe version. (For more information on which cues are extended or were previously unreleased, see the tracklist below this review.)

These quibbles aside, the deluxe edition does a faithful job presenting one of Powell’s best scores, and with several lengthy, previously unreleased cues now available, fans can finally create a playlist that works for them. (If you have both the original and deluxe albums, instructions to create an “optimal” no-editing-required assembly is also included below this review).

Compared to other modern action scores - whether those from the early 2000’s or the present - Paycheck is still surprisingly refreshing. Powell wrote the drum-loop heavy score for The Bourne Identity a year prior, and while the style of this (and the superior Bourne Supremacy which followed in 2004) has since been heavily emulated by others, Paycheck benefits from a seemingly overlooked but far more interesting and lighthearted sound (the closest thing to it since is Source Code by Chris Bacon). The score takes itself far less seriously than the film, including an appropriate level of heightened melodrama and an over-the-top, action adventure style.

While Paycheck still features a sizable amount of drum loops and electronics, they’re used to embellish a sizable orchestra consisting of driving strings, punchy brass and fluttering woodwinds. The electronics themselves are clean and crisp rather than brooding and overbearing, with Powell often utilising them for rhythm rather than droning or atmospheric effects. When things need to get loud, he unleashes blaring brass and walloping percussion rather than just turning up the volume of electronics. The way in which woodwinds are incorporated into the action music is also noteworthy, with them often playing extremely fast, rhythmic passages before handing them off to the strings. There are also a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them (cover-your-ears-and-you’ll-miss-them?) moments of choir for a couple of revelatory moments (“Lucky Number”, “Tomorrow’s Headlines”), though given how brief these appearances are, I assume it’s sampled. From what I recall, the vocals in “Lucky Number” are samples of vocalist Lisbeth Scott, which Powell also utilised in Agent Cody Banks.

On the subject of Agent Cody Banks, which parodied elements of David Arnold’s James Bond scores, Paycheck may also remind listeners of the more contemporary Bond sound, not only because of the clever blending of orchestra and electronics, but through some extremely ballsy brass writing. Just listen to “Portents Of Crystal Balls”, “Wolfe Pack”, “Return To Allcom”, “Future Tense” or “Fait Accompli” and imagine what John Powell could do if he scored a Bond picture.

The score for Paycheck revolves around a central love theme. Hints of it appear from the very first track, with the first five notes being heard on piano in “Main Title” before being fleshed out into full form throughout the rest of the score. In typical Powell fashion, it’s an extremely malleable theme, with him twisting and manipulating it throughout as the different puzzle pieces of the film come together. It’s a really lovely theme, and not what you’d expect in a film such as this, let alone it being the main theme.

A more ominous, descending motif appears in the final third of the score (“Tomorrow’s Headlines”, “Return To Allcom”, “Future Tense”) and there are also a few repeating rhythmic elements, but largely, the main love theme does the heavy lifting throughout and works extremely well.

The shorter previously unreleased cues are nearly all in the first half of the score and are arguably the least engaging, their brief length limiting any kind of interesting development. Cues such as “A Kiss Of Questionable Morality”, “Memory Wipe”, “Party Of Two”, “Injection”, “You’re Done”, “Freeze Frames”, “The Ring”, “That’s You”, “Lucky Number” and “Reservations'' are all consistent in style with their longer counterparts, but they fail to do much beyond extending the listening experience at the cost of sacrificing pace. It’s nice to finally have them, but they are not cues which are likely to be returned to frequently, unless you insist on listening to the complete score.

With that out of the way, the amount of excellent (and often lengthy) previously unreleased material should not be understated. “A Good Life” is a short but tender piano-based cue, while “A Second Chance” features some gorgeous woodwind material before building to a crescendo that launches into the first of the real highlights of the score: the action music. The longest previously unreleased cue “Hot Seat” is a 7 minute masterclass in tension which gradually builds into frenetic cat-and-mouse chase music as Affleck’s character is captured by and subsequently escapes from the FBI. “The Third Rail” is another huge action set piece full of rumbling piano and thundering percussion. Ironically, despite the volume of this cue, it’s virtually inaudible in the film, buried under the sound effects of a subway train hurtling through a tunnel. It’s fantastic to finally be able to hear it, Powell doing his typically busy writing - I wonder if he knew how the mix would turn out at the time of composing?

Other highlights on the first disc are those which were also on the original album - “Portents Of Crystal Balls” is a “Bond-arrives-at-the-lair-esque” cue as Affleck’s character travels by helicopter to commence his mysterious new assignment. “Twenty Items” underpins a key piecing-the-puzzle-together scene with an electronic drum beat forming the backbone of the cue which strings and percussion gradually build upon. (What was presumably a mastering or editing oversight in this track on the original album has been fixed here - see if you can spot it.) “Wolfe Pack” is another chase cue full of furious strings and blaring brass, all supported by the electronic percussion.

The second half of the score doesn’t waste a note, with every track on the second disc offering something noteworthy. Launching straight into what is arguably the score’s centerpiece: the seven and a half minute duo of “Hog Chase” cues, together, these are truly two of the best action cues John Powell has ever written. The sheer number of layers of orchestra, percussion and electronics and the way in which he seamlessly shifts the focus between all of them is immensely impressive. For casual listeners, these cues will undoubtedly be the highlight of the score and should immediately go onto any “best of John Powell” playlists.

A note for fans who are already familiar with the Hog Chase cues - the deluxe versions both have a clean ending and beginning, rather than the two parts being conjoined/crossfaded as presented on the original album. While I’m never normally one for supporting cues being linked together unnecessarily (there’s a gap between them in the film), this is a rare exception where removing the dead air between them improved the listening experience. I’d never listen to part 2 in isolation, and a rip of the original album tracks as a merged track will likely remain my go-to version. Those familiar with part 2 may also notice subtle changes in how different sections of the cue are edited together - we’re only talking milliseconds difference compared to the original album version, but it’s noticeable and may take some getting used to. If you’re not already familiar with the cue, this point is moot, and everything aside, the Hog Chase cues remain two of Powell’s best-ever tracks which get frequent air time - this likely being the reason the changes are noticeable at all.

Even with the Hog Chase cues over, things are far from finished. The deluxe album features both the (superior) film and original album versions of “I Don’t Remember”, a melancholy cue as Uma Thurman’s character understands the heartbreaking extent of her partner’s memory wipe, with Powell really having to do the heavy lifting to inject some emotion into the scene (it would be comical without it). The original album (alternate) version reveals itself to be a more somber extension of “A Good Life” from earlier in the score. “Tomorrow’s Headlines”, the darkest and most dramatic cue in the score accompanies the realisation of the sinister technology that Affleck’s character was actually working on, and that it was he who set the plan in motion to turn things around, which of course, he’d since forgotten.

More Bond-esque style permeates “Return To Allcom”, another previously unreleased highlight, while “Future Tense”, “Bio Lab Bash” (another massive action cue, also previously unreleased) and “Fait Accompli” combine to create a nearly 18-minute action extravaganza. Powell really pulls out all the stops here, with all the different elements of the score prior - the glorious main theme, the punchy action, and the necessary drama and heroics - all culminating in an immensely satisfying finale. Listening to the score alone, you really would think it was for a film of much higher calibre.

The album rounds out with some slightly cheesy “happy ending” music in “One Big Paycheck”, though it’s still largely appealing and unmistakably Powell, before ending with a lovely string quartet version of the main theme in “Uma’s Tune” (“Rachel’s Party” on the original album).

The deluxe edition has been completely remastered by John Traunwieser at Powell’s swanky 5 Cat Studios (which I believe now features one cat and a couple of poodles). Like the Solo deluxe edition, a score which already sounded great, they've somehow found a way to get even more clarity out of the music, the brass sounding subtly but noticeably crisper than before. There also appears to be some more dynamic range in the bass, and the orchestra sounds as though it’s been brought ever so slightly forward in the mix, benefitting the frequently complex action writing that deserves to be heard in all its glory.

The quality of Powell’s work in the early to mid 2000’s should not be underestimated - it should have been no surprise that he would become one of the best composers in the industry, though one could be forgiven if they only looked at the list of films on his resume rather than listening to the music he actually wrote for them.

While he may have only gained more mainstream recognition in 2010 for How To Train Your Dragon, Paycheck is a worthy highlight from early in his Hollywood career. It’s strange to think that Paycheck came only 6 years after his first major work on Face/Off, and at the time of writing this review, we’ve had another 18 years of John Powell scores since. Paycheck remains in my regular listening rotation and is still one of the greatest examples of the John Powell sound. While it may not have the scale of the Dragons scores or Solo, it’s up there as one of his most entertaining scores.

The deluxe edition contains at least 30 minutes of previously unreleased music that’s just as good as what is on the original album, and almost 15 minutes of consistent but unessential additional music that it’s nice to have the option to listen to. It would have been nice if the original album versions of tracks were also included and benefited from the improved sound quality, but overall, this is a very welcome release. Casual John Powell listeners may wish to first try out or refresh themselves with the Hog Chase cues and original album before committing to the deluxe edition, but Powell fans, or anyone who enjoys the original album already should make this an immediate purchase.

Tracklist and original album comparison

Disc One:
1. Paycheck: Main Title From The Motion Picture (3:29) “Main Title”, extended
2. A Kiss Of Flexible Morality (1:10) Previously unreleased
3. Memory Wipe (0:54) Previously unreleased
4. A Good Life (1:05) Previously unreleased
5. Party Of Two (0:32) Previously unreleased
6. Portents Of Crystal Balls (2:11) “Crystal Balls”
7. Injection (0:32) Previously unreleased
8. A Second Chance (1:54) Previously unreleased
9. You’re Done (1:16) Previously unreleased
10. Freeze Frames (1:59) Previously unreleased
11. Hot Seat (7:39) Previously unreleased
12. The Ring (0:42) Previously unreleased
13. That’s You (0:31) Previously unreleased
14. Twenty Items (5:39) “20 Items”, extended
15. Lucky Number (2:01) Previously unreleased
16. Wolfe Pack (4:01) Extended
17. The Third Rail (3:28) Previously unreleased
18. Reservations (3:25) Previously unreleased
19. Mirror Message/Imposter (8:43) Previously separate tracks, both extended

Disc one length: 51:15

Disc Two:
1. Hog Chase Part 1 (3:18) Clean ending
2. Hog Chase Part 2 (4:06) Clean beginning
3. I Don’t Remember (1:33) Film version, previously unreleased
4. I Don’t Remember (Alternate Version) (1:35) Original album version
5. Tomorrow’s Headlines (4:27)
6. Return to Allcom (3:13) Previously unreleased
7. Future Tense (7:58) Extended
8. Bio Lab Bash (3:08) Previously unreleased
9. Fait Accompli (6:39) Includes “The Finger”
10. One Big Payback (5:37) Previously unreleased
11. Uma’s Tune (Bonus Track) (2:55) “Rachel’s Party”

Disc two length: 44:30
Total length: 1:35:45

“Optimal” no-editing-required assembly

Although the deluxe edition does benefit from improved sound mix, combining music from the deluxe and original albums is unlikely to result in a noticeable difference in quality.

1. Paycheck: Main Title From The Motion Picture (3:29) Deluxe track 1.01
2. A Good Life (1:05) Deluxe track 1.04
3. Uma’s Tune (Bonus Track) (2:55) Deluxe track 2.11
4. Portents Of Crystal Balls (2:11) Deluxe track 1.06
5. A Second Chance (1:54) Deluxe track 1.08
6. Hot Seat (7:39) Deluxe track 1.11
7. 20 Items (2:53) OST track 2
8. Wolfe Pack (2:54) OST track 3
9. The Third Rail (3:28) Deluxe track 1.17
10. Mirror Message / Imposter (7:30) OST tracks 5 & 6 (join if possible)
11. Hog Chase (7:17) OST tracks 7 & 8 (join if possible)
12. I Don’t Remember (1:33) Deluxe track 2.03
13. Tomorrow’s Headlines (4:27) Deluxe track 2.05
14. Return to Allcom (3:13) Deluxe track 2.06
15. Future Tense (7:58) Deluxe track 2.07
16. Bio Lab Bash (3:08) Deluxe track 2.08
17. Fait Accompli (6:39) Deluxe track 2.09
18. One Big Payback (5:37) Deluxe track 2.10

(click to rate this score)  
(total of 5 votes - average 4.7/5)

Released by

Varèse Sarabande (deluxe edition 2021)