UK release date: Mar 26 2008

cast list

Ben Affleck
Uma Thurman
Aaron Eckhart
Paul Giamatti
Michael C Hall

directed by
John Woo

Some might say that John Woo and Ben Affleck both have things to prove. Director Woo because, after the commercial and critical success of Face/Off, he presided over the fluff that was Mission: Impossible-2. Meanwhile Affleck, so promising in Good Will Hunting, has leapt from one bad film to the next, culminating in Gigli, the ill-advised venture with partner J-Lo that flopped like an octogenarian without Viagra – no (Shanghai) Surprise there.

Enter Paycheck, which follows in the illustrious footsteps of Bladerunner, Total Recall (okay, maybe “illustrious” is too strong a word) and Minority Report in being based on a short story by sci-fi author Philip K Dick. I say “based” but “tenuously written around” is probably a more accurate description because it’s hard to believe that Dick could ever write something with as many plot flaws as those which jump up and down shouting, “Crap screenplay!” as you watch Paycheck.

The general plot outline is a perfectly good one. A genius chap works as a “reverse engineer”, taking apart innovative products by one company and then reassembling them into something better on behalf of a competitor. He gets paid shed-loads but has to have his memory wiped at the end of each project.

Then comes a three-year job where he’s promised an eight-figure sum. When he goes to get his pay cheque (and we’ll use the Franco-English spelling here thank you very much), he’s more than a little cheesed off to discover he waived his right to the money three weeks earlier and instead posted himself an envelope full of seemingly random, every day objects. Of course, he can’t remember a thing and his bemusement is complete when shortly afterwards people start trying to kill him…

So what’s the problem? Well, if I said to you, “Ben Affleck is a genius!” I think you might worry for my sanity. The fact is that Affleck just doesn’t have the acting nous to make us believe his big blue collar has been exchanged for little grey cells. Yeah, he furrows his brow and looks serious but if a side-parting in his hair is supposed to make us believe he’s an engineer then Mr Woo needs to spend more time hanging out at university campuses.

And then there’s those plot flaws. We’re not just talking about the standard action film nonsense of the good guys defying the laws of statistics by not getting hit once after being shot at hundreds of times. Without spoiling the plot, they are choice questions like what kind of genius and hard-nosed businessman would take the risk of having his memory wiped before getting paid, even if it was only being paid a deposit?

Or how could a security pass, which turns out to be one of the items in the envelope, have ever been smuggled out of a top-security, ultra-paranoid company without arousing suspicion (which is the whole premise for the apparently innocuous nature of all the other items)? And it turns out he doesn’t need the pass anyway, as anyone with half a brain can work out as they watch this…

It gets worse I’m afraid. An audience of film critics is never going to be the most forgiving, but it’s rare to see a movie where the whole theatre laughs out loud. At bits they’re not supposed to, I mean.

So we get one of the worst bits of dialogue you’ll hear in years when a Government official suddenly says in his best hammy voice that Affleck’s co-scientist was once working on a lens so powerful that it could see around “the curvature of the universe”! Now that’s what I call taking the science out of science fiction…

And then towards the end of the film at a pivotal point when Affleck may or may not be about to die, a door opens, the action slows down and… a dove flies through the air! What the heck? Woo needs to get some counselling for that kinky dove fetish of his. Go back to Face/Off and M:I-2 to see what I mean.

If this all sounds a little harsh, it’s only fair to say that Paycheck does have its good points too. The fact that Dick’s form of sci-fi has people, not superheroes, is always appealing; the special effects are splendid; and Woo’s obligatory motorbike/car chase is as thrilling as usual. As lobotomised ways of spending two hours go, Paycheck is certainly not bottom of the list. But all in all, I’d strongly advise you wait to hire it on DVD…

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