by Mel Valentin
When Hong Kong-turned-Hollywood filmmaker John Woo's ("Hard Boiled," "Bullet in the Head," "The Killer," "A Better Tomorrow I and II") career goes into retrospective mode (i.e., when he's officially or unofficially retired from directing), "Paycheck," a sloppily written, lazily directed science-fiction/action/adventure/thriller loosely (very loosely) based on a short story by Philip K. Dick starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman, will be conspicuous by its absence. Released at the end of 2003 to negative reviews and mediocre box office returns, "Paycheck" also capped Affleck's notorious trifecta. Along with Affleck's lethargic performances in "Daredevil" and "Gigli," "Paycheck" was a sure sign that critics and audiences had grown indifferent or even hostile to Affleck's once ubiquitous appearances in front of the camera.The near future. Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), a highly skilled engineer, gets a call from an old friend, billionaire businessman James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart). Rethrick, the CEO/founder of Allcom, a high-tech company, needs Jennings’ help with a top-secret project. Rethrick won’t tell Jennings anything about the project, except that it’ll make Jennings millions. There’s one catch, though. In order to work on the top-secret project and collect Rethrick’s promised millions, Jennings has to undergo a complete mind-wipe at the end of the estimated three year long project. Jennings tours the facility, meets fellow project members, and catches the eye of a biologist, Dr. Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman, underused), working for Allcom. After some hesitation, Jennings agrees and Rethrick’s right-hand man, John Wolfe (Colm Feore), administers the first of two injections necessary to complete the mind-wipe process.
"John Woo + Ben Affleck = major disappointment."
Flash forward three years. Jennings awakens (apparently wearing the same suit) and learns that the mystery project is complete and payday’s arrived. He’s also missing three years worth of memories. Happy to be on his way, Jennings stops by the pre-designated bank to collect his earnings, $92 million dollars in Allcom stock. Jennings is all set to enjoy a long, comfortable life in retirement. When he tries to make a withdrawal, however, he discovers that he’s forfeited all rights to the Allcom stock. All that’s left is a yellow manila envelope containing a variety of common objects (e.g., a pack of cigarettes, sunglasses, a bus pass, a diamond ring, a fortune cookie, janitor’s keys, a cigarette lighter, hairspray, a paperclip, a match book, etc.).
Before Jennings can figure out what’s going on, two FBI agents, Dodge (Joe Morton) and Klein (Michael C. Hall) arrest Jennings, bring him back to the local FBI offices, and inform Jennings that he’s probably committed treason. With the help of the cigarettes and the sunglasses, Jennings escapes detention. Moments later, the bus pass proves useful in escaping the FBI. With the help of an old friend, Shorty (Paul Giamatti), Jennings begins to piece together the nature of the secret project: a time viewer or window that allows the user to see into the future. Realizing that the time machine will give Rethrick too much power and lead to disaster, the pre-mind wipe Jennings looked into his own future and collected all the necessary objects to successfully escape Rethrick, the FBI, and destroy the machine. He also sabotaged the time machine.
The best that can be said about Paycheck is that Affleck and Woo did exactly what the title suggests, they fulfilled their contracts in front and behind the camera, collected their multi-million dollar paychecks, and moved on to other remunerative projects. Affleck followed Paycheck with equally unmemorable roles, Jersey Girl and Surviving Christmas before taking a much-needed year off (partly as a result of the Jennifer Lopez fiasco) and returning in 2006 with a better-than-average (for Affleck) performance as the washed up George Reeves in Hollywoodland and a walk-on role in Smokin’ Aces. Affleck may have a limited range, but when he’s trying (and admittedly that isn’t often), he’s more than watchable (as Changing Lanes showed five years ago.
Woo’s post-Paycheck career hasn’t been much better. Besides directing two made-for-television films (one a failed, never-aired pilot, a remake of Lost in Space, Woo has been quiet. Woo’s next project, The Battle of Red Cliff, a Chinese-language martial arts epic, makes all the more obvious that Woo’s sojourn in Hollywood that began in 1994 with Hard Target, Broken Arrow two years later, and Face-Off a year later has reached an end. If Woo’s career in Hollywood is over, then sadly, it’s obvious why: Paycheck was a lackluster, mediocre effort by a filmmaker once considered unparalled in the action genre. The action set pieces aren’t anything a competent director-for-hire couldn’t pull off. There’s little of Woo’s baroque visual style on display. That may have been due to Woo’s disinterest in the material or a limited budget ($60 million doesn’t go as far as it once did).
But Paycheck failure isn’t all due to Affleck and Woo’s disinterest in the project. Equal blame has to go to the screenwriter, Dean Georgaris, whose only writing credit before Paycheck was for the forgettable Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life. Why Georgaris was picked to write a screenplay based on a Philip K. Dick short story is anyone’s guess, but the script he came up with is riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, lapses in logic, and clichéd plot elements that were already derivative when James Cameron used them to much better effect for The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1984 and 1991 respectively or Steven Spielberg used them for Minority Report just a year earlier. To be fair, Philip k. Dick’s short story was written in 1952 and published a year later in Imagination, so the time viewer idea is at least fifty years old. Fairness aside, audiences in 2003 probably thought of The Bourne Identity when Jennings agrees to have his mind wiped in exchange for the multi-million dollar paycheck of the title.Throw an apathetic, indifferent John Woo, a bored listless Affleck, an underused, barely there Uma Thurman, and an unoriginal, limp screenplay by Dean Georgaris, and it’s easy to see why critics and moviegoers passed on "Paycheck" four years ago. With so little effort on display, it’s just as easy to imagine why no one involved will want "Paycheck" listed among their highlights when the time comes to look back on their careers in Hollywood.
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originally posted: 06/15/07 15:06:18