Principal Cast : Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Peter Friedman, Michael C Hall, Ivana Millicevic, Kathryn Morris, Joe Morton.
Synopsis: What seemed like a breezy idea for an engineer to net him millions of dollars, leaves him on the run for his life and piecing together why he’s being chased.
For the best part of a decade, cult favourite director John Woo had tried to carve a niche for himself in Hollywood, having arrived from his native Hong Kong to make Hard Target in 1993, with Jean Claude Van Damme. Despite a series of blockbuster successes – notably Face/Off and the inescapably overblown Mission Impossible II, Woo’s Hollywood career never reached the heights his acclaim from his homeland afforded him. Broken Arrow as mildly successful, and Windtalkers was met with very mediocre reviews and box-office. 2003’s Paycheck, starring Ben Affleck, was the last of six films he would make in America, and off the back of this messy, incredibly dumb sci-fi actioner, you can see how seeking a return home might have felt appropriate at the time.
Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a “reverse engineer” who takes apart technology and develops competing inventions for big companies, the key to the film being that after he’s completed his work he has his memory erased so he can’t recall doing what he did. It’s a silly conceit but it plays into the Woo wheelhouse of morally grey protagonists forced to confront some Greater Good, and Paycheck’s deus ex machina is certainly one head-scratching leap in logic and plausibility. It’s a nonsense, this film, and Woo, together with screenwriter Dean Georgaris, ask a lot from the viewer in overcoming a distinct lack of verisimilitude. Throw in Aaron Eckhart and Colm Feore as the film’s Bad Guys and Uma Thurman as the unlikely romantic sidebar – weirdly, Thurman and Affleck have absolutely zero chemistry on-screen, which makes their love a real chore to endure – and you have a halfway decent cast all eyeing off that Face/Off style zaniness audiences went bananas for. But Eckhart ain’t no Nic Cage, and Affleck ain’t peak 90’s John Travolta; Paycheck by name, paycheck by nature I suspect, because the whole film feels a lot like John Woo is simply going through the motions.
The great director’s flair for action is evident but it’s obvious to all his heart isn’t in it. The action beats here are dopey, listless things that are all show but little go. Woo’s trademark motif of a dove flying through shot is hamfistedly jammed into a laughably inane climactic moment, which really does lampoon not only his own work but the pompous Hollywood machine. The widescreen editing, camerawork and heaving lifting done by Affleck to convince us this is a character and story worth following will be the litmus test for any viewer seeking a diversion from the trials of life, but I’d suggest Paycheck probably won’t give you the respite you require. It’s a very, very average movie: a great little time waster that’s stupidly funny and too easily lampooned, but will while-away a lazy, undemanding Sunday afternoon.