Affleck Cashes In
When you take into account the various elements of Paycheck, it doesn't sound like a very promising movie. Inspired by Philip K. Dick's short story, the plot rips off Minority Report (another Dick adaptation), features characters flatter than a can of diet soda, and trades in its suspenseful, intriguing premise for a handful of slick stunt sequences. And yet, while I was ready to classify John Woo's latest effort as a goofy-minded action flick, I enjoyed it for the escapist entertainment it's meant to be.
In the not-too-distant future, corporations are dead set on staying one step ahead of the competition. This is where average schmoe Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) comes in. As a "reverse-engineer," it's Michael's job to take a product, improve upon it, and sell the idea to another company. The memory of his time spent working is wiped away as a result, but as long as Michael gets a big paycheck in the end, it's an arrangement our friend is comfortable with. One day, however, an old friend named Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) approaches Michael with the job of a lifetime. Details of the project are kept under tight wraps, except for the fact that it will cost Michael three years of his life and will leave him with an eight-figure sum when work ends.
Our hero accepts the job, and in the blink of an eye, he wakes up three years later and almost $100 million richer -- or so it seems. When Jennings goes to claim his paycheck, he's shocked to discover not a huge payday but rather an open can of worms that causes chaos in his life. With the help of an envelope filled with 19 everyday items, objects Jennings mailed himself from the past as a means of piecing together the puzzle of his missing memories, Michael is forced to go on the run from government agents and various other assassins to figure out what he helped create over the past three years and to rekindle a romance with a colleague (Uma Thurman) he doesn't remember.
Paycheck emerges as Hitchcock Lite. For the first act or so, Woo sets up the story in an appropriately stylish and intriguing fashion. His vision of the future seems pretty reasonable (not much different from how it is now), and the presentation of Michael's career, the type of people he works with and the consequences of his job, is executed fairly well, as is the establishment of the film's central mystery. For a while, Woo sees beyond the gimmick and tries to expand on the idea of using simple, everyday items as clues to sorting out the past while tying them into details of the story yet to be revealed. Why did Jennings pass up the big paycheck? Why mail himself an envelope filled with stuff like a half-finished crossword puzzle, a can of hairspray, and a tube of ball bearings? Woo utilizes thought-provoking questions such as these to hook the viewer in from the get-go.
It's disappointing to see the potential for a blend of science fiction and Hitchcockian suspense abandoned so soon in favor of putting Affleck and Thurman in a couple of gunfights and motorcycle chases (after all, this is a John Woo movie), but Woo has fun with the idea as much as he can before cutting back to the doves and explosions. In any case, even when Paycheck switches over to being a banal actioner, Woo creates a slick, exciting atmosphere, leaving the film looking great even when there's absolutely nothing going on. He creates an especially spiffy climax involving Affleck fighting a couple of bad guys while Uma helps him out by guiding a robotic claw.
The performances, on the other hand, are something of a mixed bag. Affleck's duties to his character are simple, and the man fulfills them well (in other words, this is as close to an apology for Gigli as we're going to get). He plays a decent version of Hitchcock's Wrong Man, an average guy who just wants to know what happened to his money and what took place in the three years stolen from his head. For Thurman, however, this is a step down from her tour-de-force turn as The Bride in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. You can see her fighting off her flat character traits, trying to be more than the love interest who's saddened that her boyfriend has no idea who she is, but in the end, the script doesn't give her much to do but hang along for the ride. Eckhart plays your standard, power-hungry villain, and he and the other marquee names are backed up by character actors like Colm Feore as a shady assassin, Paul Giamatti as Michael's brainiac buddy, and Joe Morton as a government agent.
I consider Paycheck a two-hour festival of chases, explosions, and fight scenes galore that don't mean a thing. But, hey, they sure do look cool. Woo may forsake a fascinating story for glitzy action, but he makes the ride fun while it lasts.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Paramount and rated "PG-13" for intense action, violence and brief language.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.