February 29 2004, 0 Comments

Paycheck doesn’t want to be an action movie. It would rather play out as a thoughtful story about the intriguing possibility of seeing into the future. However, John Woo is directing the picture, so you also get high-speed vehicle pursuits and lots of explosions. It’s just that whenever those are happening on screen, you feel yourself wishing they’d cut back to the absorbing mystery that lies at heart of the plot.

Ben Affleck is Michael Jennings, an electronic engineer who is a wiz at reverse engineering other people’s hi-tech designs and selling them off to whomever chooses to hire him. To prevent him selling those ripped off ideas to any other competitors, the firms who make use of his expertise insist on erasing his memory of the period he worked for them. So, he moves from one job to the next, earning huge paychecks, but accumulating only very little to reminisce on. He’s quite happy with this. As he explains to his techie friend, Shorty (Paul Giamatti), all he’s left with are the highlights: the fantastic parties and vacations he spends his paychecks on. All the dull moments spent punching clocks at the office are conveniently wiped clean…

But now an old varsity buddy of his, James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), wants him for a project that will wipe out a more considerable chunk of his already Swiss cheese-like memory: a three-year assignment to reverse a top-secret piece of equipment. Three years is a long time, but Rethrick convinces him it will pass in the blink of an eye. And on screen, it literally does. Instantaneously after seeing Michael accept the assignment we cut to him directly after his memory of the past three years has been erased. Which is exactly the way the character experienced it: as if nothing ever happened.

He should be $92 million richer from the company stock he was given as payment for the job, however when he goes to the bank to collect some of that money, he is informed that he signed away his rights to the shares three weeks ago. Naturally, he can’t remember doing this. And why would he have given up the money? All that’s left to him is a manila envelope containing an odd assortment of trinkets with no apparent value.

No apparent value until the items in the envelope manage to help him escape FBI agents sent to kill him. It turns out the equipment he reverse-engineered happened to be stolen from the government. He quickly realizes a pattern: each item in the envelope was put there to be of use to him at exactly the moment he needs it, and every time he uses an item, he seems to be following a path towards unraveling the mystery of why he lost the $92 million and why strange men in black keep trying to kill him. But who sent Michael the items in the envelope? Was it Michael himself? He certainly can’t remember doing it. And if so, how did he know precisely what he’d need at precisely the right time? Ah, but that all has to do with what Michael invented during his three years working for Rethrick, which Michael has no recollection of whatsoever.

I won’t reveal any further plot details but the screenplay itself is a good piece of reverse engineering; working backwards from its inevitable conclusion to the point where Michael completed his assignment. Each of the items in the manila envelope fit neatly into place like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, just waiting for Affleck to put them all together as if he was in his very own episode of MacGyver.

The middle section of the movie where Affleck spends his time solving the riddles is thoroughly entertaining, and I was reminded of Hitchcock’s classic thriller North by Northwest, particularly because of the common element of an “innocent man wrongly accused”, but even more so because of the scenes where Ben Affleck is chased through a bus terminal and then onto train tracks by the villains. A little more grey on the temples and Affleck would have been the spitting image of Cary Grant running in his grey suit in that 1959 film.

But Hitchcock’s film was art, and this film at the very best is merely entertainment. Woo allows the film to lose focus by including too many action set-pieces that simply aren’t engaging enough to the audience. By the time the ride is over, the intrigue that was generated by the plot earlier seems to have been lost, and the ending – although fitting – seems a bit of a let-down.

Uma Thurman’s role in the film feels a bit tacked on. She really isn’t there to be anything more than a pretty face that may provide Affleck’s character with a reason to try and solve the mystery – as if the $92 million weren’t enough… And though the role is similar to the one she played in Gattaca, she isn’t able to coax as much chemistry out of Affleck as she did with Ethan Hawke (perhaps explaining why Thurman and Hawke ended up being a couple off screen). Also, Gattaca was a far more stylish set and Thurman is the type of actress who thrives in highly stylized pictures; she seems to be languishing here in Woo’s clean-cut Hollywood production.

All in all, the movie is good entertainment. It’s not a remarkable film that you’ll be talking about for weeks after, but it certainly gives you a good excuse to eat popcorn in a dark room with strangers.

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