Nowhere in “Paycheck,” the new John Woo film, does its star Ben Affleck take a sideways dive in slow-motion, a .45 blazing in each hand. In fact, there’s practically no gunplay at all and a lower on-screen body count than your average episode of “CSI.” While this would seem to be a harbinger of doom for those Woo fanatics out there who’ve been closely monitoring his post-Hong Kong work, it’s quite refreshing to see the guy try something different. Quite honestly, if this had been a more violent film, it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
Taking more liberties with the original Philip K. Dick short story than should be legally allowed, “Paycheck” puts us in the year 2007 when industrial espionage is just all the rage. Michael Jennings (Affleck) is a “reverse engineer” who he gets hired by a company to take a rival’s piece of equipment apart and put it back together so they can steal the technology, after which he gets his memory of the entire job erased (it’s the future, you see, they can do that). The script makes no attempt to get into Jennings’s mind, to figure out what kind of guy would willingly do something like this, no matter what the payoff, and that’s probably for the best: any attempts by Affleck to register soul-searching depth would have turned this into a comedy. He mostly just grins his way through.
Things get going when Jennings is hired by an old college buddy, Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), now a high-tech millionaire, for a long-term project. After coming out three years later with no memory, Jennings thinks he’s going to be sitting on a massive payday, only to find out that he forfeited his stock options and left himself 19 random items. Then he gets busted by the FBI – turns out that project he was working on for Rethrick had something to do with a secret government program. After that, it’s a man-on-the-run scenario, where Jennings has to get himself out of one scrape or another by using one of the items he left himself (innocuous things like hairspray, sunglasses, and a lighter) and figuring out why Rethrick has set him up.
It’s not exactly Hitchcock here, but the story litters Jennings’s path with enough complex puzzles that things keep ticking along quite nicely. “Paycheck” is a speedy thing, both in story and appearance, Woo having given the film a clean, tooled-steel appearance and sharp editing structure: you could cut yourself on all the immaculately tailored suits on display here. And oddly enough, even though the Dean Georgaris script has enough cheesy lines to have most audiences hooting at the screen in derision, it doesn’t matter, as Woo has played everything as campy possible; in fact, the bad dialogue just enhances the appeal. This is like “Face/Off” without the massive shootouts. Eckhart and Affleck make for decent adversaries, with Eckhart missing only a oily mustache to twist villainously, while newly-minted action babe Uma Thurman and Paul Giamatti (playing the requisite love interest and comic relief, respectively) both just seem happy to be there.
Everyone plays it pretty light and easy, there’s none of the heavy-duty emotional fireworks that ground your average Woo film. But when the fight scenes do come, even though they involve more punching and kicking then shooting, “Paycheck” shows itself to be one of the more competent and reassuring action movies to come out for quite some time; it’s nice to know that there’s a director out there who still knows how to use marquee stars and to blow stuff up real good, without resorting to CGI fakery.
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