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.
The high-tech DVD menus offer even more to ponder over, with an alternate ending, some deleted and extended scenes plus a couple of featurettes. The Stunts of Paycheck takes us behind the scenes from storyboard to execution of the thrilling motor cycle stunt. We hear from John Woo as to what he wanted and how the studio did not think it could be shot in time. The stunt co-ordinator is 'a motor cycle freak' says Woo. The scene was shot in half-time and then at full speed. This is an exciting sequence to watch, through split screen to the final frame. If you've ever wondered what it's like to be onset with John Woo, check out Designing the Future - an excellent behind the scenes feature.
Published July 8, 2004
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PAYCHECK: DVD (M)
CAST: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall
DIRECTOR: John Woo
SCRIPT: Dean Georgaris (short story by Philip K. Dick)
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
PRESENTATION: Widescreen 16:9
SPECIAL FEATURES: Director's Commentary; screenwriters Commentary; Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck; Designing the Future; deleted Scenes; extended scenes; alternate ending
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
DVD RELEASE: July 7, 2004