By: Erik Swift
Paramount Pictures’ “Paycheck” was unfortunately buried in the annual glut of holiday season films this past year. Just how unfortunate remains to be seen, because most people that passed it by for “Mystic River,” “Lost In Translation” or the final entry in “The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy made the right choice. While “Paycheck” is far from a steaming pile of sh*t, it’s not a great film. Don’t worry about being first in line when the video store opens – the special collector’s edition DVD will be there, patiently waiting for someone to rent it.
Director John Woo’s film begins in 2007, where Ben Affleck’s Michael Jennings is a hi-tech creative that freelances for Allcom, Inc., run by his buddy James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart). Every gig Jennings signs on for requires the erasing of his memory when the job wraps, a dangerous but mandatory security precaution with extremely lucrative benefits. When Jennings takes on a multi-year assignment worth $90 million, his client tries to remove more than his brains after its completion. The plot gets interesting when Jennings receives a packet from himself, sent prior before the usual mental snip job. Turns out that the project he was working on involved a machine that could see the future (yes). The resourceful guy had luckily foreseen situations coming where he could use the envelope’s random objects (hairspray, ball bearings, train tickets) to save his life. With Rethrick’s henchmen and the feds on his tail, Jennings needs to stay alive long enough to destroy his creation and save the planet.
How sad it can’t obliterate “Gigli” from memory. From here, the bad part is wishing the same gizmo could work for anyone watching the movie to avoid an unbelievable letdown; the fun part is watching Affleck’s character sift through the mound of junk and figure out how to escape his pursuers. Sir Alfred Hitchcock would be amused by “Paycheck,” but only because he’d already made this film several times before, and better. The “McGuffin” is the top-secret apparatus and Affleck’s man in the wrong place at the wrong time is nothing new. From a score that sounds remarkably similar to Bernard Hermann to Woo’s use of the camera in the shower and from high angles (note the very cool shot involving a reflection off a creamer dispenser), nearly everything in “Paycheck” repeatedly pays tribute to the Master Of Suspense. Unlike “High Anxiety” or even “Basic Instinct,” it’s just not done well. Unfortunately, when you have great material coming from Philip K. Dick (“Blade Runner”, “Total Recall”), it shouldn’t be wasted like this.
Signature Wooisms (slow motion gun battles, birds, etc.) are noticeably absent – “Paycheck” could easily be someone else’s film, which is the problem. Woo’s latest effort continues his string of miscues since 1997’s “Face/Off.” It’s not the bile that “Windtalkers” was, but it’s close. There are plot holes in this that are just ridiculous. How is Jennings, who has just had the last three years wiped from his memory, able to remember a code and operate a machine he created during that time period? Wouldn’t most people that just walk into a high school get arrested before finding their way to a conveniently empty bio lab when school is in session? Name the last film where any female actress has a mullet, either. Even worse, the cast seems to be walking through a poetry reading. Affleck is likable, but he seems to be wearing the wrong suit. Fresh from “Kill Bill Vol.1” and “Vol. 2” is Uma Thurman, but her turn as Dr. Rachel Porter leaves me pulling for The Bride to come out of nowhere and Hattori Hanzo a few baddies. She is way too doe-eyed here, and barely manages to kick some ass. Paul Giamatti, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall, even the usually reliable Aaron Eckhart are dialing this one in.
There are several moments when “Paycheck” flickers with life (the riveting one-way street car chase), but the realization that this movie will be a disappointment is obvious several minutes in. Jennings, his last memory being that the Boston Red Sox made the playoffs, finds a note from Rethrick informing him that his beloved team eventually lost. It’s comforting to have the knowledge that the Red Sox are no better in the next three years than they have been since 1918, but who needs a machine to dispense that information? Make Ted Williams roll around in the cryogenic fridge, I say!
The DVD menus are pretty cool, and the extras are better than average, aside from some forgettable deleted scenes. Check out the featurettes and Woo’s commentary – whenever the director talks about filmmaking it’s time to shut up and listen. Any peek behind his motion pictures validates the time spent viewing his work. This guy truly cares about his films, but the proof is not on display here. The compensation for watching “Paycheck” even once could be better.