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IN SHORT: oh boy what a loser. [PG-13 for intense action violence and brief language. 119 minutes]
It is important to note that we expect ridiculous movies from director John Woo because his action sequences are phenomenal. He's got at least one of those in Paycheck, a film whose reason for being is so utterly confusing that the entire film is now being explained in its television commercials. That's a step up from the initial sales pitch, which implied that a character's mind -- his memory has been erased -- held national secrets that must be recovered. That's sorta kinda what Paycheck is about but, when push comes to shove, this was half an idea from SF writer Philip K. Dick, who knew it (because he didn't flesh out this 1953 short story into a full novel length, as far as we know). We read tons of PKD way back when though whatever this story originally was is long forgotten. This site doesn't compare to Source Material as a rule, so we let sleeping stories lie.
Welcome to a SF skewed version of present day reality, where guys dress in 50s style suits and rich white guys are not only incredibly rich, they're incredibly evil in that corporate way that was evil after the 1950s or 60s were over. Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is no white knight, you should know. The guy makes his living reverse engineering new technology, rebuilding it in a way that doesn't violate patents and making his employers and himself incredibly rich. The only hang up to the job is that, each time he's done, the corporate types plant him in a machine and, thanks to his best friend Shorty (Paul Giamatti) electrically destroy all the brain cells containing the memory of what he's done. The technology is limited to an eight week span -- do not ask us why. It is important that you don't even consider that kind of question while watching Paycheck -- and Jennings doesn't seem all that concerned with the ever growing number of gaps in his memory.
Enter incredibly rich white guy Jim Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) who has come up with a way to extend that memory wipe technology -- better amnesia through chemistry -- and wants Affleck to commit three years of his life to a top secret project. If successful, Affleck is looking at an 8 figure paycheck. Before he can say yes to the offer, Jennings blows his chance to pick up a very fine, and more-intelligent-than-the-kind-of-bimbos-that-hang-on-the-arms-of incredibly rich white guys blonde Dr. Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman). Porter also works for Rethrick, on a project involving weather manipulation, and will become important a couple of paragraphs down.
Jennings takes the deal and is introduced to an ex-government physicist named William Dekker. Then it's three years later and his memory is gone and his stock options are worth $90 millions, give or take. When he goes to finalize the deal, he is given an envelope with 19 every day items in it -- hair spray, an Allen wrench, a single bullet, a fortune cookie fortune and so forth -- which he had mailed to himself, and is then told that he had signed away his paycheck four weeks earlier.
There's that damned memory wipe thing, come back to bite him on the ass.
Dekker is murdered -- why Jennings remembers Dekker is something we've, uh, forgotten -- probably has something to do with FBI is strapping him into its own machine, one that restores memory don'tcha know, because whatever he's done with Dekker is a threat to national security. How Jennings gets away is aided and abetted by items in that envelope. Paycheck could have been a great mystery, as Jennings tries to figure out what each object means to restoring his memory and keep the hell away from evil men who work for evil rich men who out to kill him, but it's not.
Those clues will lead back to Dr. Porter who, apparently, carried on a torrid affair with our hero while he did whatever it was he did. The two will run from a hail of bullets and, as great action icons are wont to do, will eventually save the world from . . . Ah, the hell with it. Jennings built a machine to see into the future, carefully described by the film in logical manner -- though the description is dead on for building a machine that can only see into the past, the reason why we were immediately disengaged from ignoring the ridiculousness of the story idea -- and must make sure the machine is never used again.
He's already managed this, by the way, by booby trapping the circuitry. Rethrick, who has discovered that the machine doesn't work rather than putting his greasy paw around his pal and saying, look, we can fix that $90 millions thing if you take a look and see if you can figure out what you did, takes the word of another geeky goon who thinks he can figure out the problem, and gives a thumbs up to killing of the only man who can fix the thing. We're inserting that line of thought into the space before the FBI drops the hammer on Jennings, by way of saying that this script is to poorly thought out that that Porter's lab turns out to be spitting distance from where The Machine is. For something built under such security, that the two characters (and the evil guys shooting at 'em) can run back and forth between the two is a mind boggling foul up. More important, that thought would never have occurred to us if the script was so long on gunfire and so short on physical action sequences that made Woo famous.
We expect ridiculous stories from John Woo. We also expect action sequences so phenomenal that we don't care that the story is ridiculous. Trying to mix mystery and action is not something that is unimaginable but, to be plain about it, even if we were still chemically enhancing the experience the script totally bites, folks.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Paycheck, he would have paid . . .
avoid Paycheck unless you can get for less than a buck at the local vid store. Those who enhance may want to find one chase sequence -- it's on motorcycles -- that is worth watching.
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