The thought that it could be “Paycheck” crossed my mind, but no, it’s far too close before release – wait, was that John Woo taking a peek at the audiencer Yes, it was. My girl wanted to leave right then and there because anything Affleck does makes her reach for the pink stuff. I made her stay for the screening.
And now I offer her my sincere apologizes. John Woo is officially an old man. It breaks my heart to write that. I first became aware of Woo after watching “Hard Target.” It blew my mind. I had never seen anything like it before. You can imagine the des**tment that occurred after I got my hands on “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled.” We’ve all been witness to his steady decline since those films, but with “Paycheck” he’s reached a new nadir.
This is the most boring, tired and dim-witted film he has ever made. He’s just going through the motions now. Remember all the emotional passion in Woo’s earlier work (“Don’t let me die like a dog!”)r Gone. The meditations on honor, loyalty and what separates good from evilr anished. Kick ass action scenesr Some other guy must be directing those now because Woo certainly isn’t.
Ben Affleck plays a reverse engineer in the near future who helps corporations get a leg up by figuring out how their competitors’ products operate. For reasons not fully explained, after each of these jobs Ben has to get his memory wiped so he can’t remember any of the work he’s done. Enter Aaron Eckhart, an old friend, who offers Ben a job to build something that will net Ben $90 million – one big paycheck. After some truly embarrassing dialogue exchanges with Uma Thurman that are supposed to set up some sort of romance, Ben rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. Of course we don’t see on what because that would spoil the “mystery.”
Flash forward three years. Ben has completed his task for the obviously evil Eckhart. Strangely, though, Ben has forfeited all of his money and mailed himself an envelope containing twenty unrelated, everyday items. Ben doesn’t remember doing any of this because of the memory-wipe. But before Ben is allowed to moan too much, a pair of FBI Agents (the criminally wasted Joe Morton and Michael C. Hall) arrest Ben for treason. There’s a silly scene where they interrogate Ben while he sits on a spinning chair (apparently, in the future, they force confessions by making you sick to your stomach), but he escapes thanks to two of the random items in that envelope. It’s almost like past-Ben would know that future-Ben would need those two exact things to get out a jam. What the audience has just figured out takes Ben another ten excruciating minutes of screen time to realize – that he has built the Evil Eckhart a machine that can literally see into the future.
The only way Ben can evade the Feds and survive the goons Evil Eckhart has sent his way is through the prodigious use of the items in that envelope. A neat concept on paper, but it basically serves to make Ben omnipotent and any suspense the movie may have generated is obliterated because we know that whenever Ben is in trouble he just has to reach into the envelope and pull out a paperclip or a motorcycle key and everything will be a-okay.
If the lack of suspense doesn’t turn you off, the utter contempt “Paycheck” has for its audience will. Hey, filmmakersr Ben Affleck has the faulty memory, not us, okayr We don’t need the scene of Ben sitting in a hotel room and having a flashback of everything that’s happened to him in the last ten minutes. We just saw it. We also don’t need to be reminded every quarter-hour that Ben built a machine that can witness things that have yet to happen. We got that. You also don’t have to keep reminding us that knowing one’s own future has bad consequences. Even the high school students you’ll be marketing this to have read “Oedipus.” Just get to the action scenes, all rightr
Or maybe don’t. What you would expect to be the high water marks of a Woo film, the action scenes of “Paycheck” are depressingly weak. Very little PG-13 gunplay (and no, I repeat, no two-handed blasting action), a tepid car chase that has all of one good explosion and a showdown in a rain-swept botanical garden that climaxes with Ben and Uma jumping out of the way of a bullet we’ve known is going to be fired at this exact moment in time for the last hour-and-a-half. Wow. How exciting.
Maybe the performances were good, you ask. The movie does have a strong cast. Well, Ben is…Ben. You either like his schtick or you don’t. Personally, I think it works better when he is the unlikely hero as in “Sum of All Fears” rather than a superman like he is here or in “Daredevil.” Paramount must be on a crusade to ruin Aaron Eckhart’s career by putting him in drek like this and “The Core.” He must think so, too because he gives without a doubt the worst performance I have ever seen from him. Paul Giamatti appears to be paying penance for being given such a good role in “American Splendor.” All he does here is say unfunny lines with impeccable comic timing – what they call in the business “groaners.” And Umar She gets to do three things: 1) cry when Ben says he can’t remember their love affair (this happens way more times than you would think possible in a two hour movie) 2) gaze admiringly at Ben when he demonstrates his scientific prowess 3) kick people’s asses with props such as a giant wrench and thrown motorcycle helmet. These are the moments when Uma really comes alive, but I felt the credit for that lies more with Quentin than Woo.
Woo does give us a dove flying in slow motion and some Christian imagery, but it all seems like a pale imitation of his older, better work. “Paycheck” is worse than “Windtalkers” and worse than “M:I-2.” Worse than “Broken Arrowr” Yeah, because at least “Arrow” appealed to that reptilian part of my brain that needs to see things explode and people riddled with bullets. “Paycheck” couldn’t even deliver that.Rating: D