Despite a strong December, my heart was crushed twice by directors I am slowly losing
faith in. Richard Donner was the reason why I became so infatuated with movies to begin
with. He made “Superman” and “Superman II” the best super hero fantasy films of all
time, and that was more than 20 years ago. But “Timeline” turned out to be one of the
worst action films of the year. John Woo dazzled me in 1997 with “Face/Off,” one of my
favorite action movies of all time, yet his most recent film, “Paycheck,” is evidence that he
might have just been a one-hit-wonder in America. “Broken Arrow” was good but only
liked by a few people other than myself, and I haven’t seen “Mission: Impossible II.”
“Paycheck” begins with an exciting premise that is based on the story by Philip K. Dick;
Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a reverse engineer in the near-future and is contracted
by large companies to basically do cool stuff with computer programs and hardware. He
sees what the competition has done, then makes something better for his employer. But
because he deals with sensitive, high-tech and confidential information, he agrees to have
his memory wiped clean after each job and is presented with a nice paycheck after each
But the fun stops after Woo shows us how the whole process works. Michael meets up
with his pal, Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart from the dull film, “The Core”), head of Allcom,
who offers him an eight-figure job. But unlike the usual jobs that only require a few
months; this one will take three years. Three years of lost memory, huh? I guess it’s worth
the cash. Michael thinks so too and eagerly accepts the offer.
Immediately I began to ask myself, why would you trust anybody with your life and
millions of dollars knowing that you’re memory is going to be wiped clean? What if they
don’t pay him? And sure enough, the movie quickly shifts to three years later, and Michael
finds himself with only a manila envelope, but no money. In the envelope; 19 items, clues
that he sent to himself to figure out how to solve the big puzzle.
At this point in the film I was engaged, ready to solve the puzzle along side Michael. And
in walks Colm Feore who plays a character (Wolf) whose name is very similar to the one
he played in “Face/Off” (Walsh) and I get excited…only to be severely let-down by the
The problem is that the movie never picks up. Michael finds himself with a manila
envelope and 19 clues that are supposed to help him figure out why he didn’t get any
money, why everyone is out to kill him, and how to stop a machine that predicts the future
(which he built) from functioning. Each of these questions will of course require lots of
explosions, dead bodies and car chases. That I am fine with, but how it is all structured is
where the problem exists.
Some of the 19 items include: a paper-clip, a bullet, a crossword puzzle, a wrench, a
diamond ring, a fortune-cookie fortune, a pair of sunglasses, a lighter, a buss pass, a key
card that gets you access to the top-secret future-predicting machine, a pack of cigarettes,
and a can of pink hair-spray. These items are supposed to be regular, everyday items so
Michael could pass them along undetected by his employer’s security team. How a
clearance pass to a future-predicting machine counts as an ‘everyday item’, I do not know.
It’s a little farfetched that even an engineer can somehow figure out in a matter of minutes,
at the crucial moment, what each item is to be used for. When Rethrick’s gang of thugs
chase Michael down the crowded streets, he runs toward the bus station, and
whada-you-know, he’s got a bus pass! When he’s hiding in a dark room from a couple of
police officers without any weapons, he opens his envelope and pulls out the lighter and
hair-spray to make napalm.
How does Michael initially escape captivity when being interrogated by the FBI after he
awakes from his memory cleaning? Agents Dodge (Joe Morton) and Klein (Michael C.
Hall) light up a cigarette (one of Michael’s 19 clues) and the smoke sets off the
smoke-detector which releases gallons of steam into the room and sounds off a blazing
alarm causing massive bedlam. Michael uses a pair of sunglasses (another clue) to escape
because the lenses allow him to see through the steam and escape from the building. So
this is how smoke detectors work in the future? I’d hate to accidentally burn the turkey on
That’s pretty much how the clues work, but some are still a mystery. Where did he find a
fortune that lists the winning lotto numbers and the correct phrase on the reverse side? Did
he have a Chinese fortune cookie making machine with him in the compound where he
We never learn how Michael got that fortune-cookie fortune because the movie skips over
the three years he spent at Allcom. This was a wise move, but we still need to know a little
more about his living conditions. How confined was Michael? I’m pretty sure he had to
live on the premises, and if so, was he allowed to leave for Chinese take-out, or did it have
to be delivered?
To help Michael in his quest to solve the puzzle and escape death, he receives the
assistance from a biologist named Rachel (Uma Thurman), a beautiful biologist at that
with whom he had a relationship with during the three years they worked together under
Rethrick at Allcom. But sadly, Michael doesn’t remember their fling because his memory
of the past three years doesn’t exist. But it’s a good thing he befriended a girl who, like
him, can fight surprisingly better than Rethrick’s security team as each one of them
eventually gets knocked out in humorous fashion. The FBI officers are no exception, even
the ones with guns. It was sad to see Uma Thurman be reduced from stellar-knockout in
the brilliant film “Kill Bill,” to just ‘the girl’ in this boring movie that sucked out all my
interest 2/3 the way in.
She’s got one of those banal motif one-liners that start early on and never let up. Back in
the first year when Michael first met Rachel, she turned him down when he made an
advance at a party. Upon giving up, Rachel shoots back, "You don't believe in second
chances, do you?" And she says it again repeatedly in situations such as the one when
they’re fighting security thugs and Michael doesn’t think they’ll make it out alive. “You
don’t believe in second chances, do you?”
Michael’s token loser-friend and sidekick is Shorty (Paul Giamatti). He’s the typical witty
best-friend who is funny when he gets to talk, but is usually busy holding the main
character’s seat so he can mingle with all the single women at the bar. Shorty was the
entrusted friend who did the memory-erasing in previous jobs before Michael joined
And of course we wonder about the villains’ motives throughout the entire film. We know
that Rethrick used Michael’s machine to see the future, and the nuclear war that occurs as
a result, so why doesn’t Rethrick see to the end of this machine? Can he be so evil that
he’ll stop at nothing to be rich, even though the world will soon end because of it? What
else could he possibly want with a lens powerful enough to see past the curvature of space
and time? He believes that if you can predict the future, your stock value will shoot up.
But is all that worth an eminent world war? This is one serious villain.
“Paycheck” wins the award for most plot-holes in a story. There are no logical
connections, and the more you analyze the story, the less sense it makes. Yes, even John
Woo movies can be scrutinized to a point, but “Paycheck” is too thin; it breaks when you
try to handle it.
Woo’s big car chase is somewhat enjoyable but isn’t enough to keep the rest of the movie
from sinking. In “Face/Off” John Travolta and Nicholas Cage wowed us with witty
dialogue and believable over-the-top action sequences. But unlike the just mentioned
characters from “Face/Off,” Michael and Rachel aren’t skilled FBI agents with knowledge
in lethal combat. Yet they expertly maneuver a BMW motorcycle (product placement
highly emphasized) through traffic while avoiding gunfire at the same time. Never during
this sequence do either of them break a sweat. Maybe Rachel has experience from her job
as a biologist where she must have handled lethal, poison-spitting plants. But Michael has
no excuse for why he’s James Bond all of a sudden.
It also helps that the bad guys in this film aren’t that smart. Before Michael gets his
memory erased at the Allcom headquarters, he writes a message for Rachel on her
bathroom mirror to hint what’s about to happen. Through a security camera (in a
bathroom?) Rethrick and Wolf can only see her expression as she looks at her mirror after
taking a steamy shower. Rethrick sends Wolf to read the message when she leaves, but
when he gets there, gasp, the mirror is clean. It takes them a moment to realize how steam
and mirrors work. Mind you these guys plan to control the world someday.
What “Paycheck” boils down to in the end is an exercise of the usual action sequences on
the level of self-parody; a bird flies by in slow-motion but it feels completely out of place.
In “Face/Off,” it was skillful and added meaning to the massacre that took place in the
church. Here Woo just repeats himself and it doesn’t work.
Affleck and Thurman do just fine with what they have to work with, although Thurman is
not nearly as believable as she was in “Kill Bill.” Eckhart still has some convincing to do
as an actor, although I like him better playing a villain in “Paycheck” better than as a hero
in “The Core.”
If you want a better executed action movie that involves high-tech futuristic gadgetry,
then John Woo’s “Face/Off” is plenty entertaining. If you want a superior film that’s about
the altering of the near future, then I suggest Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report.”
Those films were at least made well on a technical level. In "Paycheck" there are obvious
dubbing issues where a character's mouth wasn't moving even though he was saying
something. And in one scene, Rachel was sitting but the second the camera cut and came
back, she was standing. The film lacks the fluid motion that the final cut of any movie
“Paycheck” is just another mediocre movie in Ben Affleck’s bad year (Daredevil, Gigli),
but fans and non-fans should still anticipate him in next-year’s Kevin Smith flick, “Jersey
Girl.” And we know Uma Thurman won’t have any problems bouncing back, with “Kill
Bill Vol. 2” coming out next year. As for John Woo, I am concerned. “Paycheck” isn’t
just a bad movie..it really isn’t that horrible. But by the end it gets boring, and
John Woo films should never get boring.