Director : John Woo
Screenplay : Dean Georgaris (based on the short story by Philip K. Dick)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Ben Affleck (Michael Jennings), Aaron Eckhart (Rethrick), Uma Thurman (Rachel Porter), Paul Giamatti (Shorty), Colm Feore (Wolfe), Joe Morton (Agent Dodge), Michael C. Hall (Agent Klein), Peter Friedman (Attorney General Brown), Kathryn Morris (Rita Dunne)
After watching Paycheck, one might be tempted to think that the title refers to director John Woo’s primary reason for making the movie.
Woo, an extraordinary action auteur who made an international name for himself in Hong Kong during the 1980s and early 1990s with a string a balletic masculine movie-myths and has since moved on to a Hollywood career marked by both misses (his 1993 debut, Hard Target) and hits (1997’s Face/Off), plays this one largely by the numbers. Some of his signature bravura action is certainly discernible (at one point, there’s even an inexplicable white dove flying amidst the violence), but it’s all toned down until it’s so generic and rote that virtually any competent director could have done it. And, not only that, Woo’s melodramatic flourishes and thematic fascination with masculine bonding and the blurring of good and evil are virtually absent. Simply put, it’s not a John Woo movie.
Paycheck’s admittedly intriguing story is courtesy of the brilliant sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, whom Hollywood frequently treats as little more than a scenarist, someone who offers interesting premises, but little else. The constant criticism of movies adapted from Dick’s novels and short stories, with perhaps the exception of Blade Runner (1982), is that they don’t fully explore his themes. The same is certainly true of Paycheck, which milks its premise for the first half, but then largely drops it in favor of action sequence after action sequence.
The story takes place in the near future. Ben Affleck stars as Michael Jennings, a shady freelance engineer who specializes in taking apart other people’s designs and reworking them for the competition. He’s brilliant, but he’s just in it for the money (hence, the title). He works his jobs for a couple of weeks and then allows his memory of that time to be erased, which protects both him and his employer.
All is well for Jennings until he decides to take a job from Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), the billionaire owner of a huge and sinister corporation called Allcom. They’re working an a project of enormous importance that involves secret military technology, and Jennings ends up giving three years of his life to it. He is promised stock options worth $90 million when he’s done, but after his mind is erased and he goes in to collect his rewards, he finds that he has forfeited the stock options and instead sent himself a manila envelop with 19 ordinary items—a lighter, a bus pass, a paperclip, a pack of cigarettes, sunglasses, and so forth.
Thus, without any memory of the previous three years, the mystery is established: During that time, what did Jennings do and why did he make the seemingly crazy decision to refuse his big paycheck? The answer to that question is slowly revealed as Jennings finds himself being pursued by both the FBI, who wants to question him about his involvement in a project involving stolen military technology, and by Allcom’s goons, who just want him dead. Either way, Jennings knows he was involved in something big. The twist is that Jennings figures out that each of the 19 items he sent himself has a function in keeping him alive and out of the hands of the feds. But, how would he know exactly which items would help him? What at first plays like ridiculous coincidence turns out the be the key to what his project was.
Jennings also learns that he had a love interest in Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman), a biologist who also works for Allcom and becomes his partner in figuring out what happened. Their three years together have been wiped from Jennings’ mind, and credit should be given that the movie develops some genuine pathos in the fact that Rachel remembers everything while Jennings is left only with photographs and video of himself happily in love. We are left with the question, does love still exist if someone can’t remember it?
Most of this takes place during Paycheck’s first hour, which is by far its best because it plays with intriguing science fiction themes of memory, technology, and the power of both to reveal and possibly distort the future. But, the last third of the movie bogs down into a series of action setpieces that quickly become tiresome and redundant. A lengthy motorcycle chase has a few good moments, but nothing compared to the over-the-top intensity of what Woo brought to a similar chase in Mission: Impossible 2. The movie is punched home with a lot of big explosions and some martial-arts derring-do, none of which looks or feels new or particularly exciting. John Woo may have been behind the camera, but by the end the movie it feels like someone else was pulling the strings.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick