Woo directs Paycheck, a sci-fi action thriller which
mines the short stories of Philip K. Dick, the celebrated
author who also inspired such fine films as Blade Runner,
Total Recall and Minority Report. Those flicks
featured futuristic visions that were both thought-provoking
and rich with portentous detail. Paycheck gets on
the thought-provoking train in the beginning, but before
long it derails into an efficient, competent action thriller
that's only a shade above all-out ludicrous. MTV junkies
and fans of leading man Ben Affleck will likely find this
to be a welcome diversion, but fans of John Woo and more
discerning moviegoers may not be so charitable.
Affleck is Michael Jennings,
a reverse engineer who takes hush-hush jobs from big corporations
with the caveat that he will have his memory wiped when
the job is over. He agrees to work for old buddy Jimmy Rethrick
(Aaron Eckhart), who hires Jennings for a three-year project
that will pay megabucks. All Michael has to do is give up
three whole years of his life, let those years get wiped
from his mind, then sit back and enjoy the earnings.
sounds almost too easy, which is exactly what it is. Jennings
does awaken three years after the job is done, but he finds
that his stock options were forfeited, apparently by himself.
Bewildered, all he can do is follow nineteen clues delivered
to himself in a paper envelope. The clues are innocuous
everyday itemsa cigarette lighter, a can of hairspray,
a few keys and other assorted consumablesbut there
clearly is a purpose for each and every item in the envelope.
With former buddy Rethrick now gunning for Michael's life,
he must piece together his past, and hopefully discover
why he gave up his massive payday in the first place.
Paycheck has a plot
which can be easily spoiled, so explaining what happens
in this film would get us a red flag warning from the Anti-Spoiler
Coalition of America. To avoid that, let's just cut
straight to the chase: this movie is entertaining but bland
as skim milk, which is probably the dairy equivalent of
leading man Affleck. Paycheck's plot is deceptively
puzzle-like, but everything falls into place with such rote
efficiency that any and all surprise is relegated to a split-second
of weightless wondering.
After certain plot points are dispensed
(and Jennings' clues revealed), the film goes about its
routine business, which means time for motorcycle chases,
Affleck ass-kicking sessions, and blatantly literal pontificating
on the perils of sci-fi. Nothing that happens is offensive
or annoying, and the connecting of the dots makes for some
intruiging storytelling. However, when the dots are connected,
all you get is a straight line, and not a picture with even
the bare minimum of complexity. Other works of Philip K.
Dick provided meaty material to chew on, but Paycheck is ultimately pretty dry stuff.
Which brings us back to the
man behind the camera: John Woo. Once Hong Kong's number
one filmmaking export, Woo has since ditched his celebrated
emotional themes and hyperkinetic camerawork for something
far more powerful: marketing. Paycheck has great
source material, a relatively hot leading man (this film
was shot before Gigli was released), a respected
leading actress (Uma Thurman, who struggles valiantly with
a cardboard script), and a director who has shown that he
can do some pretty cool stuff. Those elements do work together
to form an entertaining enough package, but in the end that's
all this is: a package.
Everything about Paycheck fits the Hollywood mold so perfectly that it could have
been cooked up by any number of suits at a power lunch.
Woo's action in Paycheck is far from the surprising
hyperkinetic work that we're used to (ah, the power of PG-13),
and it's even a step below the stuff that blew up in Mission:
Impossible 2. Without John Woo to surprise us, all we're
left with is the film's premise, which is interesting, but
still surprises a lot less than it probably should. Paycheck lives up to its namesake by earning its creators one, and
there are probably many moviegoers who will feel this film
matches their dumbed-down Hollywood expectations. However,
those who view John Woo as a beacon of cinematic quality
might end up asking for a refund. (Kozo 2003)