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Paycheck (2003)
Director: John Woo

review by Steven Hampton

Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck, Daredevil, Dogma) is a 'reverse-engineer' for hire. He dismantles patented hi-tech gizmos to furnish his dishonest employers with an improved version of desirable consumer products without all that expensive R&D work. There's no trust between executive and technician, so Jennings' contracts include a partial memory erasure so he doesn't even know what a crook he's become. Then, a secret job lasting three years leaves Jennings almost penniless and clueless as to what sort of mess he's created for himself (and the planet!) and why his former boss wants him dead...

You might have thought any movie based on a Philip K. Dick story about a device that predicts the future would be oozing with sweaty tensions and brain-melting obsessions or, at least, the openly sinister aspects of advanced science put to inhuman uses. However, unlike the 'mind-fuck' twists of Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), or even the weaker guilt-tripper thrills of Spielberg's Minority Report, Paycheck foregoes much of the overwhelming paranoia characteristic of nearly all film drama adapted from PKD works, opting for straightforward action instead of the engagingly psychological audacity or cerebral weirdness of authentic Dickian scenarios. And so, what this movie really looks and feels like, at times, is simply another one of the numerous lacklustre imitators of Dick-inspired sci-fi.

As energetic and stylish as this film undoubtedly is, narrative complexity, and much of its potential as science fiction cinema, was stripped away during the planning stages. Reported rewrites to the original draft script have excised all but the most basic SF notions, so we are presented with a 'cool' 21st century cityscape that's not much different from dozens of other glossy blockbuster futures. Anyone expecting the grungy retro noir of Blade Runner (1982), will probably be frustrated by this overly polished vision of grim corporate sterility. Admittedly, director John Woo, an acknowledged master of brash, cinematic mayhem, has little affinity for SF - as the clunky technothriller elements of Face-Off (1997) proved. That said, he doesn't appear to have made an effort to learn much about genre filmmaking since then, and this latest effort seems thoroughly diluted on every level. It's neither admirable SF or a good Woo actioner.

The astute casting of Uma Thurman, whose central role in Tarantino's Kill Bill movies adds frisson and cachet to her scientist turned heroine Rachel Porter, is perhaps the film's only worthwhile asset. In one of director Woo's signature slow motion shots, Thurman's angelic profile is perfectly framed in precision lighting, confirming her status as Hollywood's premier blonde icon of the century, so far. Her dazzling, bewitching smile provides one-woman production value, so it's doubly irritating that Rachel's inevitable romance (only revealed in embarrassingly twee flashbacks) with Jennings is wholly colourless and blandly symbolised by a recurring image of caged lovebirds (one of rather too many Hitchcockian borrowings littering Paycheck).

Naturally enough, the outstanding particulars of Paycheck are the high quality action set pieces. A great deal of time and effort went into perfecting the chases, gunfights, and explosive surprises. This is a money pit of stunt carnage locked into crowd-pleasing mode. Affleck looks the part of superhero, but fails to convince as hacker and data-thief. Too quickly, he figures out how the random seeming contents of an envelope that he posted to himself are just the everyday oddments (a paperclip, a subway ticket, a cigarette lighter, etc) that he will need to extricate himself safely from life-threatening situations. He's seen the future and it's not working for anyone, including him. How can Jennings take advantage of his foresight, and use his unique knowledge of tomorrow's world for real benefit without mortal or moral risk?

The funnily ironic thing about Paycheck is that as, like their nominal hero, the filmmakers knew the story's ending before they started production, why didn't they realise it made almost no sense, even as a poetic denouement?
Paycheck poster


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Ben Affleck in Paycheck



Paycheck on DVD

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