Paycheck


Robin Clifford 
Paycheck
Laura Clifford 

Hotshot engineer Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) has made a tidy, profitable career reverse engineering other people's ideas and selling the new, improved product to big corporations. One condition he must meet, after each contract is finished, is to have all memory of his work, and that time of his life, erased from his mind. His last deal, with wealthy entrepreneur, Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), has not garnered the many millions he was promised and Michael, memory erased, must put the few clues he has to the test if he is going to get his big "Paycheck." 

Robin:
Uber action director John Woo is famous for his elaborately choreographed shoot-'em-ups and he turns his sights to the sci-fi genre with his adaptation (by scripter Dean Georgaris) of the Philip K. Dick 1950 short story of the title. We meet Michael as he prepares to take on a new reverse engineering job. He takes a piece of existing technology and brings it to a new level without incurring the normally huge R&D costs. He must pay a big price for his hefty paychecks, though, and every time must go through the dangerous mind erase process to keep his employers' secrets secure.

Michael is approached by his friend, Rethrick, and offered the biggest job of his life. The only catch is it may take up to three years to complete - longer than any of his previous jobs by far. And, he must undergo a new and different erasure process when the job is completed, but the promise of an eight-figure paycheck is too huge an enticement to pass up on. He agrees and journeys to his new boss's company where he meets pretty, super smart biologist, Rachel (Uma Thurman). He then enters the inner sanctum where Rethrick's assistant, Wolf (Colm Feore), injects him with a memory marker to set the starting point for the future memory erase. The next thing Michael knows, he is getting a second shot and it is three years later.

Jennings learns that his payoff for his years of work - on a machine that can view the future - is, indeed, eight figures. But, when he goes to get his $92 million paycheck, he is only given an envelope containing his personal effects. The trouble is, the contents in the envelope are not what he gave up years before and he learns that he has forfeited all claims to the millions. As he examines the only clues that he has, the various innocuous bits and pieces in the envelope, he struggles to make sense out of the nonsense when the FBI abruptly spirit him away.

The agents in charge of Michael's arrest (Michael. C. Hall and Joe Morton) know that he was up to something big for the past three years but Rethrick and his corporate henchmen have kept a secure lid on any detailed information. The FBI men try to read Jennings memory from the time of the contract but the erase process left only a few latent snatches of remembrance. Because of one of the items in the envelope, Michael makes his escape and finally understands that the bits and pieces in it are clues and tools, left for him by him, that may give him back his life. He enlists the help of Rachel and the two must avoid both the FBI and the killers sent by Rethrick.

John Woo makes a Hitchcock-like thriller that is an awful lot like another Hitchcock-like thriller, "Mirage (1965)," starring amnesia victim Gregory Peck. In both cases, a bunch of clues and little snatches of memory come into play to help the hero rebuild what happened in his recent past. There is also the similarity -  "work backwards" Jennings too frequently says - to "Momento" and, in a very cheesy F/X way, "Minority Report" - but Woo uses bullets and bombs instead of psychological drama to allow his lead character to win out against the bad guys.

Woo, with Chow Yun Fat, made an amazing career in Hong Kong cinema with his tough, gritty gangster films that had his trademark gunfights, doves flying and, always, two opponents looking down the barrel of each other's guns. He came to the States to make his first American film, "Hard Target" with Jean Claude Van Damm, and has had a string of successes since. "Paycheck," though it has the usual Woo signature points, is his most generic work since he came to these shores. When he uses his patented stand off, not once but twice, it is almost as if to assure himself and us that "Paycheck" is, in fact, a John Woo movie.

Ben Affleck ain't Gregory Peck but does a decent enough job as brainy engineer Jennings. He is relegated to a B-movie role in a B-movie actioner that forsakes attention to detail for lots of bullets flying and cars chasing. (In one chase scene, one of the bad guys has his windshield shot up - the bullet holes are obvious - but at that point, the good guys aren't even shooting guns. There are other such gaffs in "Paycheck," unforgivable for a director of Woo's caliber.) The rest of the support does yeoman's work but the generic material leaves them hanging. Uma Thurman is able to garner audience sympathy and continues the action heroine persona she displayed in "Kill Bill."

I was entertained while sitting through "Paycheck" but, like unbuttered popcorn, it left me unsatisfied. I give it a C+.

Laura:
Engineer Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck, "Daredevil") has an unusual employment situation - he works for an old school buddy, entrepreneur Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart, "The Missing") developing ground-breaking technologies, then has his memory from the project start erased.  When Rethrick proposes a two year engagement, Jennings is doubtful, but he changes his mind when he's offered an eight figure "Paycheck."

With "Paycheck" director John Woo ("Windtalkers") continues to lose his luster working in the United States.  This mishmash of Philip K. Dick, cheesy romance, Hitchcock references and Woo's own BMW commercials is sadly outdated on delivery.  This is the type of exercise where memory erasure is shown by giant floating cells on screen while the subject frowns and sweats and the procedure enters danger levels when someone jostles a computer monitor.

Jennings is introduced as a hot shot engineer (Affleck would convince more as a marketing guy) who plays with floating graphics right out of "Minority Report" and "SimOne."  At a party, he meets Dr. Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman, "Kill Bill"), who also works for Rethrick as a biological engineer.  She volleys Jenning's lame pickup with come-hither words about second chances.  He meets her again at the beginning of his two-year project in a scene that showcases gadgets for reuse later, then a whiteout occurs and Michael has no memory of his project (which is sometimes said to have lasted two years, other times three) nor Rachel (whom he met *before* the project began at Rethrick's party).

When he goes to pick up his paycheck he's told that he refused his stock options by a financial analyst who also points out that he applied five fifty cent stamps to an envelope that only required four (the stamp could also have been animated to squeak 'Look at me!  Look at me!). That envelope is supposed to house the personal belongings Michael was required to turn in, for no obvious reason, 2-3 years ago, but its contents - a fortune from a cookie, a lens, a key, hairspray - are not his and the nine items don't match the ten documented (it's the stamp, dummy!) Like "Memento's" tattoos and notes, this odd cache provides Michael's only clues to rebuild the events which caused him to sign away a fortune.

Having not read the original story, I cannot judge whether it or Dean Georgaris's ("Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life") adaptation is guilty of being sloppy, although I suspect the latter. We're subjected to a scene where Shorty (Paul Giamatti, "American Splendor"), Rethrick's memory wiper and Michael's only apparent friend, retrains Michael's reactive speed with Japanese fighting sticks after an eight week erasure, yet after one about twenty times as extreme, this issue is never raised.  Woo delivers the action but also throws in stylistic flourishes which now seem like self-parody.  Just when I thought he'd content his avian tendencies with a pair of lovebirds, he throws the damned white dove in our faces at a thoroughly incongruous moment.

Affleck is unlikely to win back any points for "Paycheck" although there's nothing really objectionable about the performance.  Uma Thurman gets to kick more butt, but she's forced to act like a goofy girl from a 1960s cop show.  Eckhart and Colm Feore ("National Security" - the poor guys been in two of the worst films of 2003) both indulge Woo with doubled gun scenes.  Only Paul Giamatti really satisfies as a loyal sidekick to Affleck.

"Paycheck" is sloppy and cheesy, yet features some guilty if groan-inducing pleasures, just like an overloaded pizza delivered late at night.

C-
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