Sci-fi fans will see clear similarities between John Woo's action/thriller Paycheck and Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1991). Both deal with memory and identity, as adapted from stories by author Philip K. Dick. Both star thousand-watt Hollywood celebrities (Ben Affleck here, Governor Schwarzenegger in Recall) in roles that ask little from them. And, most disappointingly, both shun an intellectual and sturdy drama that would fit the subject matter perfectly, choosing action and cornball dialogue instead.
"My life is nothing but highlights," confesses Mike Jennings (Affleck), a genius computer hacker who trades big cash for small chunks of his own memory. Jennings gets rich by dissecting massive programs and passing the goods onto rival companies - at which point, all recent activity is erased from his brain.
His life usually skips ahead months at a time until an old college buddy/mega-mogul (Aaron Eckhart) offers him tens of millions to do a highly classified job and then wipe away three entire years. The risks are uncertain but the payday is huge. In the blink of an eye (to both Mike and the viewer), his duty is done. When Mike goes to cash in, however, he finds no gold at the end of the rainbow - just an envelope containing his personal effects, of which, he has no memory (of course). He's left to unravel the puzzle that is his life.
As with Total Recall, we now move into contrived scenarios, run-of-the-mill thriller dialogue, and some crappy acting. The story details can be blamed on screenwriter Dean Georgaris, whose only previous writing credit is the second Tomb Raider film. He seems to be skilled at little cinematic tricks (cool clues, funky gadgets), but his storytelling is weak. Paycheck could have been quite engaging, but every plot revelation feels forced.
Affleck's performance doesn't help matters. As his career progresses, Affleck appears to work harder and harder at looking like he's not acting. Here, he puts so much effort into being both natural and heroic that he comes off as uncomfortably obvious. His game looks even weaker next to the likes of Uma Thurman (love interest), Colm Feore (bad guy), and Joe Morton (FBI heavy).
To show that he's having fun with the genre, Woo dresses Affleck like Cary Grant in North By Northwest and even shoots some scenes with the soft focus of that film. It's tough to determine, then, whether the line deliveries are homage to that golden era or just plain bad. Hey, didn't Hitchcock say that he considered actors to be cattle?
As with many sci-fi fantasies that move back and forth in time, Paycheck asks for a certain level of suspension of disbelief. Most viewers will let it go, especially early on as Jennings dives into the mystery at hand. As the film moves on, however, implausible facts begin to pile up, and the story has moments that ask the viewer for way too much. Most egregious is a gaping hole of a central plot point, without which, the story ceases to exist. Some will leave it alone; others may find it annoying or cheap.
Thank goodness Woo can still direct an action sequence like a master. He mixes up angles, film speeds, and motion with enough creativity and surprise to fill three Bad Boys sequels, providing one satisfying motorcycle chase scene that's even a little frightening. Through his hodgepodge of Hong Kong style melodrama (especially John Powell's hokey music) and Hitchcockian references, Woo still knows that his strong suit is action, action, action - that knowledge saves the film from diving into boring obscurity. For without his zest for kinetic energy, Paycheck would be just a few neat ideas stuffed inside a stiff, stifling adventure. Kinda like Total Recall.
On DVD, Paycheck's two commentary tracks may be worth a listen, but it's deleted scenes (including an Uma brainscan and alternate ending) that really make the disc.
Try a temp instead. It's cheaper.