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Ever since John Woo trotted off to Hollywood, the quality of his output has gradually declined. Following the days of Hard-Boiled, A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, director Woo moved into Hollywood and made his mark with the underrated Hard Target and the exceptional action-thriller Face/Off.
But the golden years of John Woo cinema have disintegrated. Mission: Impossible II and Windtalkers play a key role in the death of Woo's Hollywood career. At of 2008, Paycheck denotes Woo's final slice of Hollywood cinema. It isn't difficult to comprehend why: Paycheck is brainless, witless, utterly preposterous, formulaic, rarely thrilling and frequently boring. It's a no-brainer actioner assembled from components of the most conventional techno action-thrillers: a wealthy cold-blooded industrialist with an evil agenda, a hero with no understanding of the situation, a love interest with a passion for helping the hero, FBI pursuing the hero (they do an awful job and cause the story to constantly plod), a vast technologically-advanced laboratory, and of course plenty of security guards to get offed unsentimentally during an action scene.
Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, the story tracks a Reverse Engineer named Michael Jennings (Affleck). Employers hire Michael to deconstruct products of rival companies, re-engineer the product, and make improvements. After Michael finishes his work, he's given his paycheck and has knowledge of the experience erased from his noggin. This memory erasure essentially removes any evidence of illegal activities that could incriminate his employer.
He's soon approached by shady billionaire Rethrick (Eckhart) who offers Michael the chance of a lifetime: a job that will take three years, but will earn him almost $100 million. Against the advice of close friend Shorty (Giamatti), Michael accepts Rethrick's offer. In the blink of an eye three years have passed, Michael has finished the job, and a memory erasure has transpired. He's also almost $100 million richer! But as Michael begins to get his life back in order he's informed that during the three years he forfeited his gargantuan paycheck and instead left himself 19 seemingly useless everyday items. The FBI also begin to pursue Michael as he's been accused of treason. And Michael's life is continually threatened by the company he'd been an employee of for the preceding three years.
To me, the film's title of Paycheck presumably refers to the reason why so many big names agreed to be involved with the film. There's a lifeless Ben Affleck, an aging Uma Thurman, a cardboard Aaron Eckhart, an underused Paul Giamatti...and then there's director Woo who quite frankly appears to be on autopilot. Judging by the film's overall quality, I'm guessing Woo grew bored of the film early into the game and strived desperately to complete the film as soon as possible (quality be damned). By the time the film reached its climax I got the inkling that everyone involved was bored and urgently wanted to end the movie as soon as possible. The action is disappointing for a Woo film as well. Granted, the vehicle chase towards the middle section was somewhat watchable. However the climax got dreary very quickly. Gone is the dreaded slow motion, but as a substitute the action is almost incomprehensible. I had no idea what was happening 90% of the time. The trademark John Woo dove appearance towards the end can best be described as painful. Urgh!
Paycheck begins with a killer concept, and then quickly disintegrates into silliness before the formulaic action-packed climax. The movie continually plays it safe instead of being subversive or mind-blowing like Minority Report or Total Recall. In fact the film predominantly draws inspiration from these two aforementioned movies. Unfortunately, though, Paycheck lacks the classy touch of the former and the exhilarating ultra-violence of the latter.
Worse are the gaping plot holes. There's also the ludicrous concept of the 19 items Michael sends himself. Maybe if it wasn't so dreadfully overused we could buy it. But past the use of the first 5 items, it's impossible to believe a word of it. Further pain is derived from the lack of intelligence in the script. Everything happens so conveniently. The unbelievably handy timing is too implausible. Like when the FBI agents realise a clue regarding the future destination of the hero...just as the hero is moving to said destination.
The actors are yet another issue. The habitually horrible Ben Affleck oozes zero charm as Michael Jennings. He's so contrived and seems too content when his life is threatened. Not as bad as Gigli...but what wouldn't be? Thurman looks aging and bored. The chemistry between Thurman and Affleck is simply dismal.
In case you haven't realised, Paycheck is pure popcorn fodder with zero artistic merit. It happily rattles along at an ordinary pace as the unbelievable story (that grows thoroughly boring past the first 30 minutes) continues to unfold.
I can't help but get a sense of cinematic déjà vu: the film is strikingly similar to 2002's Minority Report. Both films are based on stories written by Philip K. Dick. Perhaps Dick was infatuated with fate and pre-destination that he decided to write two almost identical short stories. But that doesn't mean Hollywood should retread the same territory repeatedly. If Paycheck was a decent experience, the similarities to Minority Report could be overlooked. But Paycheck is stupid beyond comprehension and barely provides entertainment. I kept growing bored...even during an action scene. When it's a John Woo action scene that's causing me to yawn then something is horribly wrong.
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