Paycheck (2003) / Sci Fi-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and mild language
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall
John Woo
Screenplay: Dean Georgaris
Review published December 25, 2003

Philip K. Dick's concepts of memory, identity and time have fast become a staple of science fiction cinema in the last 25 years, kicking off with the masterful adaptation of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.  Two other terrific science fiction films would also borrow from Dick's ingenious ideas, Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall and Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, each ranking among the finest sci-fi flicks of our time.  Now John Woo takes his turn at another classic, directing the film version of Dick's short story, Paycheck.  With a proven director, some big name stars in Affleck and Thurman, and a wide release schedule. it looked like we could have another great pulp sci fi gem for Christmas 2003.  As the proverbial saying goes, looks can be deceiving.

Paycheck is the kind of gimmicky thriller that thinks its plot is so clever, the creators felt little need to give us much in character development.  Affleck takes front and center as Michael Jennings, a savvy computer engineer whose cutting edge developments put him in high demand, especially with top secret government funded projects that are so secretive, all memory of working on them is completely erased at the end of his stint.  Jennings is then made an offer he can't refuse, an 8-digit paycheck in exchange for three years of work on another super secret project for a biotech company.  Three years of his life he won't remember, but money that will leave him set for the rest of his life.  He agrees to the deal, but once his three years are up, he finds that there is no money for him, and on the run for his life from hired assassins on one side and the FBI on the other.  With only an envelope full of random items he apparently left for himself, he proceeds to get to the bottom of things before he himself is just a memory in everyone's mind.

If this plot sounds like a highly interesting idea for a movie, that's because it is.  Even with very little in the way of character development, the set-up is definitely intriguing, exploring such fascinating themes as memory, identity and looking into the future.  While the plot continues to tease us with the unknown, the story remains modestly riveting, with shallow contrivances glossed over for sake of getting to the bottom of the mystery as to what's behind all of the strange coincidences.  As more of the pieces of the puzzle come together, the less interesting the adventure becomes, and by jumping from plot point to plot point in such a ham-handed fashion, the implausibility-factor ultimately sandbags this vehicle into little more than a poorly executed curiosity.

Although clearly inspired by Philip K. Dick's story, for the first hour, Woo lifts ideas from another creative genius, Alfred Hitchcock, with parallels to North by Northwest in particular that cannot be denied.  This marks the second time he has tried to mold a film into that classic's structure, with the previous instance being his second American film, Broken Arrow.  It's an interesting homage, and with Affleck's haircut and clothing, plus the plot device of a man caught up in a world of espionage not of his own doing, effectively presented.  The similarities end there, however, as Paycheck is completely devoid of the essential qualities that made North by Northwest so remarkable.  No sparkling script, no witty dialogue, no saucy romance, and of course, no Cary Grant. 

After about an hour, all pretense of a futuristic Hitchcockian suspenser is ditched in favor of that which made John Woo the name he is today: over-the-top action.  The problem is, Woo sticks to paying homage to himself so much, the resulting climax becomes redundant, and inherently mechanical.  Not one, but two Mexican stand-offs are featured, and in a move that made me audibly groan, the obligatory slow-motion dove shot somehow finds its way in here.  What was once Woo's erudite symbolism have become directorial trademarks that no longer have meaning, forced in as an obligation when ideas are short in supply.  What Woo fails to deliver in Paycheck is anything remotely fresh or innovative, content to go through the same motions in the same way, and the tedium that was kept at bay while the plot unravels overtakes the movie during the action-packed finale.

In the end, Paycheck will be lumped in with the forgettable Philip K. Dick adapted misfires like Impostor, Screamers, and Barjo rather than the next Blade Runner, Total Recall or Minority Report.  With a lack of creative juices, little in directorial vision, and poorly crafted characterizations, it's B-movie derivativeness marketed as A-list entertainment.  While it's certainly understandable that how Affleck and Thurman would be attracted to a nifty idea for a movie, it's too bad that poor production values, a lackluster script and a director asleep at the wheel bring this one down.  One would gather that Woo's attraction to this bad sci-fi actioner didn't extend far beyond the film's title.


Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo