John Woo fans may find enough enjoyment in Paycheck to warrant doling out ticket money. True to form, Woo choreographs beautiful explosions, flying shards of glassware, rolling dodges of speeding bullets, and includes his traditional Mexican standoff (three times). Pairing John Woo with Phillip Dick material seems like a natural, but strapped with Dean Georgaris' formulaic Hollywood script and milk toast leading man Ben Afflect, Woo's stylish touches fall flat in this forgettable project and never make the proper impact. Woo's flourishes have become so cliché that I actually began giggling when Woo's white dove makes its grand entrance.
Providing the source material for Blade Runner and Minority Report, Dick ranks among the most provocative writers of the 20th century, and his short story here again combines an intriguing science fiction with social critique. As promising as Dick’s premise is, Paycheck breaks no cinematic ground and panders shamelessly to mainstream audiences. For Afflect, this offers a modicum of redemption after the Gigli disaster, yet Paramount and Dreamworks hedge their bets on his box office draw by pairing him with known ass-kicker Uma Thurmand to draw some emotional resonance. Undoubtedly, John Woo proved key in drawing Thurmand to the project, and judging by the dutiful paint by the numbers relationship of the two leads, it’s doubtful that Afflect will ever get second chance with her.
The film starts with far more promise than it delivers. High tech genius Michael Jennings (Afflect) specializes in using backwards engineering to create top secret projects, and routinely has portions of his memory erased for security reasons. Taking the standard idea of “non disclosure” to the extreme, corporations must protect their own project developments—a kidnapped Jennings would spell economic disaster, and not even the U.S. government can be trusted (a feasible argument in light of their judicial wars against Microsoft).
In an initial project for corporate billionaire Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), Jennings takes a few days to adapt a rival’s 3-D computer monitor into a real life Holograph of a sexy woman in a red dress. Jennings’ buddy Shorty (energetic and believable character actor Paul Giamatti) preps us for the central idea by selectively erasing portions of his memory, but a near mishap that comes .1 degrees of frying Jenning’s brain foreshadows future events. The future prominently figures throughout the story, as various characters strive to maneuver within its confines and/or change it.
After the introductory salvo, Jimmy proposes a much larger project that goes far beyond what Jennings has ever done. In exchange for a top secret three year project, Jimmy promises company stock options guaranteed to bring in eight figures that will set Jennings up for life. Of course, Jennings accepts; otherwise there’s no movie, but we also expect that Jennings is not destined for a long life.
A white flash signals that three years have passed, Jennings’ memory has been wiped clean by a new injection “therapy,” and he happily finds that his online account registers his stock holdings at some 96 million dollars. However, when attempting to collect his paycheck, he discovers that he has inexplicably traded his earnings for a bag of twenty seemingly unrelated objects like a crossword puzzle, ring, locker key, Chinese cookie fortune, paper clip, etc. At this point the movie is working pretty well, while all these McGuffins remain a mystery. Soon enough, however, as Jennings pieces these puzzle items together, the actors basically can sleepwalk through Woo’s landscapes of broken glass and exploding sequences.
I’ll refrain from divulging much more of the plot since this really is a plot driven vehicle that has little other pleasures besides the same Woo elements you’ve seen in all his other projects. In a backhanded way, Paycheck shows how effectively Stephen Spielberg works with Dick’s stories since he fashions a far superior character study in Minority Report. The flatness of the characters here echoes the emptiness of a Ridley Scott project. Only Thurmand and Giamatti emote with resonance, but they hopelessly fight against Afflect’s patented ennui. The only time Afflect shows interest is when his beloved Red Sox are mentioned, and the filmmakers wake him up with no less than four reminders of his baseball heroes. Even less memorable are the stock villains, who remain colorless and vague spare parts. Blow one up and replace with another stunt man, and the film plods along its predictable path.
By the end, only two possibilities remain, yet each has played out in countless thrillers and science fiction vehicles. A near homage to Spock’s Wrath of Khan sacrifice takes place when Afflect melodramatically pleads with Thurmand to “Remember me” as a clear plastic door separates them. Mainstream audiences may enjoy the film’s comfortable predictability or can find fun in pointing out the plot holes. These are so glaring that ten-year olds can play the “I Spy a Mistake” game all through the film to keep them from getting hopelessly bored. When a film disappoints with so little to recommend it, you have to do what you can to entertain yourself during the 110-minute running time.