High-tech engineer for hire, Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is accustomed to large paychecks: after each top-secret assignment, his memory is partially erased, to protect his work and his employers. His newest employer James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) promises Jennings a staggering eight-figure paycheck for a three-year project involving an invention that can see into the future. But at the end of the three years, instead of receiving his money, Jennings is told he has signed away his paycheck, and only gets back the envelope of his personal items – but the objects aren’t familiar. Assisted by his colleague, biologist Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman), with whom he has developed a (forgotten) relationship during the past three years, Jennings realises that the objects in the envelope are vital clues for survival. It soon becomes a race against time for Jennings to put the pieces together, before Rethrick, and/or the FBI kill him.
Review by Louise Keller:
For those who enjoy a ripper of a good yarn, Paycheck is good value. The notion that memory is expendable comes from a short story by acclaimed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, whose works have also inspired films like Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. Add director John Woo to the equation, and the table is set for an exciting action film with plenty of bite. It’s an interesting premise that stretches the imagination, as we ponder on not only the functional role of memory, but also the impact on the emotional. The screenplay occasionally gets bogged down with implausibility, but like Memento and The Bourne Identity, in which memory and memory triggers played a significant role, there’s a certain fascination about the function in the brain that stores information.
Ben Affleck does a perfunctory job, looking every inch the role, with his chiselled good looks and well-built physique, but I kept wishing for a hero with more charisma and layers of complexity. It’s as if the machine that wipes out memory has done such a good job, Affleck’s Jennings has become a cardboard cut-out of an action-hero. Uma Thurman, by contrast, is multi-dimensional, lighting up the screen at every opportunity. While we may not know very much about her passionate Rachel, we know enough to empathise with her, as she endures the pain of a love affair that has been forgotten. There is no sizzle or sensual connection between the two of them, so we rely on the action scenes, rather than the emotional glue, to give us our own paycheck.
The action scenes, by contrast, engage us absolutely. After all, this is John Woo at the helm, and there’s no whoa-ing Woo, when it comes to action. This is big-budget action, shot with spectacle and to great effect. Woo again gives us ‘face-off’ style pistol scenes. Action highlight is a thrilling motor cycle chase on a busy freeway: we zoom through tunnels, zigzag at acute angles between speeding cars and avoiding the crunch of metal as cars fly through the air like ungraceful, metallic birds. We feel as though we are there for the ride, weaving in and out of the traffic, keeping clear of whirring helicopters overhead, and there’s a sense of triumphant defiance as Thurman flings her helmet through a pursuing car’s windscreen, putting the final full stop to the chase. All the action is beautifully choreographed and John Powell’s diverse music adds many shades to the overall impact of the film.
All the characters are well cast with Paul Giamatti bringing the comfort factor to Shorty, whose ‘motherly’ manner is the only constant in Jennings’ memory. Aaron Eckhart makes a formidable villain (cinematography and lighting making the most of creating a sense of evil around Eckhart’s features), while Colm Feore is solid as the relentless, pursuing henchman. Having two sets of adversaries doing the pursuing from different directions brings extra tension and there is plenty to keep us stimulated and engrossed for the entire film. For maximum enjoyment, take a leap of faith, erase superfluous details from your memory bank, and get ready for Paycheck. It delivers dividends.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
If you could somehow manage to see round the curvature of the Earth, you’ll eventually be seeing your own backside, so to speak. It’s a novel idea – and ideas are what writers are supposed to be good at. Take this a step further and you’re looking ahead in time. Aah, the undying fantasy of time travel, or at least perving into the future. This is the material (by the persistently futuristic Philip K. Dick) that propels John Woo into action, in the way Woo likes to do it. It’s a case of Woo goes to Hollywood, and does what Woo does best. His signature is all over the film, except perhaps for the casting of Ben Affleck. I’d have gone for the ever-interesting Clive Owen, say, who has both the smarts and the looks and the ‘something going on’ factor. Or Hugh Jackman . . . Not that Affleck is bad, even if there’s not quite enough heat between him and Uma Thurman, but action fans won’t care. Indeed, action fans will recognise the new, post Kill Bill Thurman’s toned up physique. (She made it between Kill Bill 1 & 2.)
The story is spicily futuristic, rather than far fetched dumb, and while it’s preposterous in the cold light of day, in the dark light of the cinema it’s a diverting two hours. The fight sequences are effectively shot with enough wide shots to give us the sense of reality and context, and the various close ups (whether for surprise, for information, for suspense or for character insight) add dynamically to the film’s texture.
He also manages to squeeze in some slo-mo bullets, and his guns-in-your-face face-offs. Tension, which Woo maintains throughout, peaks during the apocalyptic climactic end game, when all the genre licks are called in to demonstrate why this genre belongs in the hands of its most ardent devotees. There are just a couple of clunky lines of dialogue (like FBI head barking orders to seek out the nerve centre of Aaron Eckhart’s determined Rethrick, clamping his lips on “I want this machine!”), but we’re more concerned with the images here.
Production design is notable by avoiding most of the clichees, and there are moments of humour and pathos, often thanks to the engaging Paul Giamatti, while CGI effects are kept to a minimum, Woo preferring to use the camera as much as possible.
Within the perimeters of the genre, the plot has a deft twist in the use of a set of clues based on everyday objects, which keeps us grounded. I like this film for both its inventive premise and for Woo’s vibrant visualisation.
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CAST: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall
PRODUCER: John Woo, John Davis, Michael Hackett, Terence Chang
DIRECTOR: John Woo
SCRIPT: Dean Georgaris (short story by Philip K. Dick)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jeffrey L. Kimball ASC
EDITOR: Kevin Stitt A.C.E., Christopher Rouse
MUSIC: John Powell
PRODUCTION DESIGN: William Sandell
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: UIP
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 18, 2004