Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, Paycheck is a by-the-numbers thriller missing the truly poetic orchestrations of action and heroic displays of bravado that highlight much of John Woo’s work. The film is centered around a computer engineer, Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), who makes a living by stealing other programmers concepts, selling them to mega-corporations and then having his memory of the business transaction erased to protect both himself and his clients. Shortly after the film opens, Jennings becomes involved in a major new project only to find himself waking up three years later with no memory of what he did in that time. With a series of nick-nacs and household items tucked inside an envelope he sent himself from the past, Jennings has to figure out why he can seemingly predict the future and why the safety of the world is now threatened by a project he can’t remember having devoted three years of his life developing. It’s an intriguing premise: a man has to work backward to recover information that he once knew, uncovering that information by moving step by step into a future that his past self has already seen. Paycheck is a clever twist on the detective film thriller, and a testament to Dick’s imagination, but it’s ultimately a failure—worse than the mediocre choreographic spectacle is its half-hearted functionality. The possibilities of Dick’s premise are never really exploited, just used as the framework for limp action set-pieces. Simply put, the film is boring, an empty bit of assembly line product. Woo goes through the motions, adding a slow motion flourish here, a two man gun stand off there, but it feels like an imitator was hired to mimic his style. The director appears to be still trying to find steady work in Hollywood by destroying the foundations of his once proud auteurist inclinations, and the end result is a tedious, uninspired creation like Paycheck. Affleck is of little help. Looking entirely out of place, the actor doesn’t seem to understand his character’s haunting position: a man who, in essence, is forced to “talk” to his own ghost, his own disassociated “self.” Affleck looks moderately concerned and meat-headedly baffled, perpetually giving the same kind of vaguely confused, searching look that a dog gets when reacting to being yelled at. He seems unable to convey the poetry and philosophical inclinations of Dick’s concept, the underlying fears and destabilizations that much of the writer’s sci-fi identity explorations are obsessed with. One has to feel sorry for Uma Thurman, who genuinely tries to instill passion and emotional depth in her character (Jennings’s forgotten love interest) but is limited by a stunted Affleck. Both director and lead seem sluggish, unable to flex their necessary creative muscles, but while Affleck may very well have little to flex in the first place, Woo’s track record cannot be discounted. One hopes that Paycheck is but a pit stop before better things to come.
- John Woo
- Dean Georgaris
- Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Michael C. Hall, Emily Holmes, Joe Morton
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