review by KJ
Doughton, 26 December 2003
For the average escapism-craving
Joe, Paycheck is a breezy way to forget about reality for two hours. The
movie looks nice. Its freshly scrubbed stars, with their soap-opera
faces and Barbie-doll bodies, are pleasing to the eyes. The violence
is served up light, like an airy soufflé, and there’s a happy
ending to induce smiles as viewers exit the theatre. In other words,
it’s an innocuous film that can’t hurt you. However, longtime
fans of John Woo, who have come to accept operatic, lead-slinging
death dances as an integral part of the director’s powerful
aesthetic, will probably be unsatisfied with this neutered variation
on his earlier, superior works.
concerns a "reverse engineer" named Michael Jennings.
Hired by cutting-edge companies to tinker with high-tech inventions,
Jennings rebuilds such gizmos into superior versions, then allows
the entire experience to be erased from his memory. The final
"mind wipe" is assisted by his equally brilliant sidekick
Shorty (Paul Giamatti, strung along for Steve Buscemi-style comic
relief as the one funny-faced cast member), and ensures that such
company secrets cannot be stolen by competitors. Sound familiar?
This memory-tampering angle comes to us courtesy Philip K. Dick, the
visionary author whose futuristic forays into mind-robbing have
fueled similar plots for Total
Recall and Minority Report.
Predictably, there’s a corporate
rotten apple lurking behind the gleaming metallic science labs,
marble business tables, and glass-encased high-rises. Jimmy Rethrick
(Aaron Eckhart) is a billionaire entrepreneur who hires Jennings to
embark on a three-year assignment involving a mega-magnifying lens
that allows one to glimpse the future. After 36 months, Jennings
will have the entire mission erased in the mother of all memory
wipes. In return for this brutal bout of amnesia, he’s be rewarded
a cool $90,000,000 paycheck. Being the yuppie whore that he is,
Jennings accepts the lengthy job.
Upon completion, however,
complications arise. An envelope that held his pre-assignment
belongings is full of unfamiliar objects instead. Meanwhile,
Jennings is horrified by the news that over the past three forgotten
years, he forfeited his massive paycheck. Adding to his confusion is
the appearance of an affectionate company woman named Rachel (Uma
Thurman), who insists that she is his lover. Huh?
The remainder of Paycheck
involves Jennings piecing together the mystery of why he’s out
several million dollars, why Rethrick’s goons and FBI agents are
hunting him, where Rachel belongs in his life, and what went wrong
during his assignment. And why is the engineer haunted by what seem
to be glimpses into the future, where he is seemingly gunned down by
an assassin’s bullet? The scientific mastermind uses his envelope
of seemingly unrelated objects to piece these puzzles together,
after learning that the collection was compiled by the
pre-"wipe" Jennings as a road-map of clues. In a kind of
"reverse scavenger hunt," Jennings must use the items to
change his future and avoid a fate-scheduled appointment with death.
An included package of steel ball bearings, for instance, is used to
set off a mall metal detector, and the ensuing confusion provides
him with a convenient, Fugitive-style escape.
Viewers who enjoy the zigs and zags
of a complex, crisscrossing plot line, ala Usual
Suspects or Memento,
might enjoy this mind-bending motion picture puzzle. But even lovers
of such intricate story mechanics will wince at the basic flaws of Paycheck’s premise. For instance, once Jennings has changed his
fate with the first of his clues, he has already altered the path of
what lies ahead. Thus, wouldn’t all of his subsequent clues be
In prioritizing the plot twists, Paycheck also fails to humanize and develop its characters. The best
of its predecessors, Andrew Davis’ The
Fugitive among them, generated tremendous empathy for its
double-crossed heroes to go with the exciting chases and tense
showdowns. So much screen time is invested into expository dialogue
(you know the blueprint: villain points gun at hero, but explains
his scheme in exhaustive detail before pulling the trigger), that we
don’t really buy the plight of these onscreen rooting interests.
Another problem is the casting of
Ben Affleck, who is to acting what the Big Mac sandwich is to fine
cuisine. Following his triumphant turn as an odious, paddle-wielding
bully in Dazed and Confused,
he’s hammered more nails into his thespian coffin than Chevy
Chase. Affleck is capable of two speeds: Snot-Nosed Yuppie Scum
(tie, hair gel, crybaby attitude) or World Saving Hunk (bare,
pumped-up chest, deer-in-headlights expression). Appearing slightly
aloof and overwhelmed, he’s like smarmy Andrew McCarthy cloned
with Keanu Reeves. Throw in the whole sad, embarrassing Bennifer
circus, and this is one celebrity disaster worthy of Irwin Allen.
Uma Thurman’s ass-kicking quotient is a pale shadow of the
magnetic actress’ work in Kill
Bill, and Giamatti simply stands around looking buffoonish (no
doubt wishing he were filming an American
Splendor sequel instead).
As for John Woo, the World’s Best
Action Director should dredge up some hungry, under-the-radar Indie
script, sign on for scale pay, and rage with the same hellfire
intensity that branded Bullet in the Head, The Killer,
and Hard-Boiled. Full of
roaring, monstrous set pieces harnessed only by their precise,
brilliant choreography, the visionary violence of his early films
has been aped by the Matrix
series and nearly every other subsequent big bang film. His
influence cannot be underestimated.
This time around, however, the
grand master is repeating himself. Recycling a Mexican gun standoff
here and a fluttering dove there, the filmmaker has jumped on his
own bandwagon. Paycheck is
John Woo lite.
Philip K. Dick
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult