starring Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman and Aaron Eckhart
review by Stephen Notley
Ben Affleck, for this movie, is a reverse engineer. He's big into breaking technologies down and stealing their secrets for corporate competitors, and for some reason each time he does this they blank his memory of the job. One day he gets a big gig, three years, 90 million bucks, working on "optical" stuff. Sounds good, except that three years later he wakes up with no memories and a goofy envelope filled with seemingly innocuous items instead of his 90 million. Plus people are trying to kill him. WTF?
Paycheck is based on a Philip K. Dick short story. And if I may say, can we please have a ten-year moratorium on movies based on Philip K. Dick stories? I mean, we get it, reality isn't real, people can mess with your mind, you never know who to trust -- enough already! We've seen it! Over and over and over again! Can Hollywood PLEASE pick another sci-fi author to utterly exhaust? Seriously, there are dozens, go look!
Anyway, once Affleck ends up on the run he finds that his dumb little envelope of items isn't so dumb after all; in fact, the items turn out to be crucially useful at just the right moments. So, basically, Paycheck is a straightforward chase movie except that Affleck gets out of jams with the help of his suspiciously handy envelope of things. About halfway through the movie we find out why and how this envelope came to be full of such unusually useful items, and it's good for a momentary juice of sci-fi-ness, and then after that it's more running around and more whipping out exactly the lighter or bus ticket or crossword puzzle called for by the situation. It's kinda cute, but it gets old rather fast particularly once we realize we're just marking time until we get to a certain point we've already seen a couple of times in flash-forwards (hint, hint).
John Woo directed this, so you'd think if nothing else at least it would contain an acceptable dose of bone-crunching double-pistol-fisted slomo action. Yet it doesn't; the action scenes are quite bland. None of the fights show anything special and even the set-pieces, like a motorcycle chase through a bunch of old abandoned box cars, never really ping. I hate to admit it, but Woo's been in free fall since Mission Impossible 2, which was bad, through Windtalkers, which was worse, and now this. All the punch and creativity and moment-to-moment detail that energized his Hong Kong films seems to have drained out of him, and now all he can do is make movies that look like John Woo knockoffs.
There are other actors in this picture. We have Uma Thurman, looking more haggard and sleep-deprived than she ever has, and that's totally including her appearance in Kill Bill. Every scene she's in you're thinking --is that a black eye? No, I guess notů wait, *is* that a black eye? No, no, I guess notů she really looks terrible.
Better than Uma is Paul Giamatti who played Harvey Pekar in this year's enormously underseen American Splendor. Even though his character's a schlep, at least he's got a bit of personality.
So Paycheck is a wishy-washy action movie without a lot of great action. It would have helped if there'd been any kind of character drama to propel our interest, but there isn't. It also would have helped if this merry-go-round of reverse-engineered plotting actually stood for or said anything, but it doesn't either. There is a cool idea in this flick, but it's too cool to be wasted on such lameness. You're better off seeing Return of the King for a 3rd time than seeing Paycheck.