John Woo is back in top form with his futuristic sci-fi thriller Paycheck. I must say I was really entertained by this film. Iím a big fan of the genre, readily admitting that most attempts fall far short. Weíve had some good ones recently, with Minority Report, Dark City, and Wooís own Face-Off being the best. Paycheck isnít on that level, but it has a lot to offer with genuine suspense and killer action scenes. Fans of the two-gun Hong Kong shooting style will be quite happy to know that John Woo hasnít lost his touch with the Mexican standoff. Even more surprising is how well Ben Affleck pulled off this role. Iím not an Affleck hater. Heís made some good films, but lets his ridiculous social life cloud his credibility. Heís quite believable as an action star, following up Daredevil with another solid, ass-kicking movie.;
The setting is the not so distant future. Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a reverse engineer, someone who cracks technology secrets for companies and has their memories erased afterwards. All he cares about is getting paid, the next big paycheck. Aaron Eckhart is Rethrick, an old friend and the CEO of a company called Alcon. He offers Jennings a hundred million-dollar payday to work on a top-secret project. The catch is itíll take three years. Jennings accepts the deal, three years vanishing in a blink of an eye. He goes to get his money, only to find out heís forfeited his shares and sent himself an envelope containing nineteen ordinary innocuous items. Also, the FBI is hot on his trail for national security reasons. Jennings realizes that Rethrick has sold him out and he must find out what heís been doing the past three years.
The greatest gimmick in the film is the envelope. Jennings comes to the conclusion that the contents of the envelope, cigarettes, a paper clip, etc., are meant to help him out of specific situations. The story develops smartly along these lines. Woo mixes suspense and bullets with the unfolding of the mystery. You have to suspend disbelief to really buy into it, but itís a fun ride if you do. Jennings near escapes are actually quite thrilling and cleverly done. I found myself wondering what the hell they were building up to and not disappointed when the secrets are revealed. I would make an effort to ignore spoilers about the movie. It ruins the experience if you know what heís looking for. Paramountís add campaign for the film has a big spoiler in it. Iím intrigued why they give this plot point away when it takes over an hour of movie time to disclose it. Do yourself a big favor and avoid the commercials for Paycheck.
Iím a big fan of John Woo and his style of filmmaking. Heís hit or miss, but really delivers when heís in top form. Paycheck is a very stylized film with a lot of slick action choreography. It has a PG-13 rating, but garners that by cutting out the bloodshed and gore. The violence isnít graphic, just smoothly done and highly entertaining. I liked the chase scenes, the gunplay, and the hand to hand combat scenes. This is John Woo in his element. He never disappoints in the action arena, but this time has a sharp story that crisply drives the film. Real fans will see his signature scenes all over, never out of place, perfectly fitting in the movie. Woo must have a soft spot for white doves because theyíre in every single one of his films.
Paycheck is another big screen adaptation of the great Phillip K. Dick short stories. Hollywood loves Dick, no pun intended. Minority Report, Total Recall, Blade Runner, and Impostor are all based on Dickís classic science fiction stories. He was one of the first modern sci-fi writers, blazing a literary trail in the fifties and sixties. Many die-hard Dick enthusiasts, again no pun intended, are not fans of the movies. They say that Dickís stories are not meant to be action extravangas. I can understand what theyíre saying, but the spirit of the stories is achieved in some of the better films. While Paycheck gets a little clichť by the conclusion, it offers up a believable world of technology gone awry in corporate hands. Alcon and Microsoft could be mirror images of each other.
Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, and Joe Morton support Affleck in his quest for the truth. They do good playing back up, each adding a distinctive character to the story. Thurman is a bonafide action star with this film and the Kill Bill series. Itíll be hard to see her in a romantic comedy after all the ass kicking sheís been doing in these movies. Affleck rules as Jennings. I loved the scenes where heís beating the tar out of the bad guys with a bamboo rod. Early in the film we see Jennings working out with a rod, establishing the fact that heís going to pummel someone with a similar weapon later in the story. Wooís directing style, with his multiple cameras and brilliant editing, shines in the fight sequences.
Paycheck is a welcome diversion to the films coming out Christmas day. To steal a line from cable, this is a movie for guys that like movies. Itís a solid action film thatíll entertain from the opening credits. Itís got its flaws, so remember to really suspend disbelief, but itís also enjoyable once you get into it. The girls might not go for it as much, but itís worth the trade-off if you forced to sit through Cold Mountain or Mona Lisa Smile.
PAYCHECK opens nationwide in theatres December 25th.