Paycheck
Grade: C-
Year: 2003
Director: John Woo
Writer: Dean Georgaris
Genre: Action/Sci-Fi
Rated: PG-13
By Scott Spicciati

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 gig.

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 film’s end.

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 Thanksgiving.

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 worked?

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 Allcom.

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 should have.

“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.

[ Home | About | Columnists | Archive | Search | Contact ]
© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. Contact Editor: Scott Spicciati