As Philip K Dick-inspired misfires go, there are about 20 minutes of reasonable material in Paycheck, where you can just about see the author’s fingerprints. As Ben Affleck turkeys go, it topped off a year of disasters (including Daredevil and Gigli) that put paid thoughts of stardom until he reinvented himself as a director. As John Woo pictures go, it’s so deficient you have to wonder if he was only ever mistakenly credited as the talent to be reckoned with in action cinema.
As ever with Dick, the core idea has plenty of potential; Michael Jennings (Affleck) takes reverse engineering jobs for clients who wish to equal or improve their competitors’ products. Following each engagement, Jennings’ memory is wiped, for both his protection and that of his client’s intellectual property rights. An old friend (Aaron Eckhart), the CEO of technology company Allcom, persuades him to take a three-year contract. This is of a significantly greater length than any previously successful mind-wiped, but the promise of enough riches for retirement quickly persuades Jennings. However, when he has completed the job, and his mind has been wiped, he discovers that he has changed the rules; while working on the project he surrendered his stock and left a breadcrumb trail of clues that will clarify why.
The revelation of what Jennings was working on, and the ethical consequences of it, will no doubt feel somewhat familiar. That isn’t why the Woo’s film fails, though. It’s because, after an intriguing set up, it is content to kick along as a generic action movie. There is no interest in exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the central idea (except in the most glib of fashions), or the specifics of the process that informs how the 20 items Jennings has left for himself are decided upon. That would take hard work (the screenplay is credited to Dean Georgias, responsible for such gems as the Tomb Raider sequel and Tristan + Isolde). I’m still trying to work out what possessed FBI guy Joe Morton to start smoking indoors, in an interrogation room with sprinkler systems, other than it was expedient to the plot. Items at Jennings’ flat (ying-yang balls, a palmistry hand) suggest preoccupations of prediction and balance, but in retrospect they are merely clumsy signifiers trying to make up for the dearth of depth elsewhere.
The design of the movie is bland or obvious in its futurism. The directorial and editing choice are clumsy and uninspired. Woo’s trademark slow motion is painfully out-of-place and embarrassingly cheesy. The action beats flounder, never providing any thrills. He’s the wrong guy for the job; a wannabe cerebral script reduced to a bargain basement actioner. Almost every visual choice shows a paucity of imagination, be it Jennings’ flashbacks or the question mark he forms his items into. There’s a dire motorbike chase, the de rigueur appearances of a dove and a gun standoff. And really dumb dialogue. The John Powell score is seemingly wall-to-wall, so someone must have been hoping it would drown out the nonsense being spouted.
Frankly, with Affleck’s performance, you can see why he fell from grace. He’s dull and unconvincing, particularly as an action guy (Woo had to put in a scene of future-martial arts training to explain why he can handle himself – it’s that kind of film); worst of all, he’s irritating. The rest of the cast shout and gurn their way to their pay cheques; Eckhart, Colm Feore, Morton and Michael C. Hall (in his debut). Uma Thurman is the love interest and her make-up artist has done a bang-up job of giving her the look of someone who’s been on a 72-hour bender. Paul Giamatti manages to be likeable in spite of being saddled with horrendous “funny” dialogue.
It’s no wonder Woo gave up on Hollywood after this. Of his six Hollywood adventures, arguably Face/Off is the only one even close to being an artistic success. Ironically, that film (flawed as it is) plays with ideas of identity and reality far more interestingly than Paycheck. It’s understandable that short stories have been a more popular source for Philip K Dick adaptations, as the subjectivity of and denseness of his novels doesn’t necessarily lend them to films (see A Scanner Darkly for a great film version but also a not very commercial one); the problem is that if they’re just a jumping off point into standard action fare they lose touch with the essence of his mind games. At one point Uma Thurman’s characters observes, “Some of the best things in life are total mistakes”, which is sadly not the case with this movie.