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.
“Paycheck” 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 w***e 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 irrelevant?
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 a*s-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.
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