Paycheck

Chases! Gunfights! Chases and Gunfights! Plus: Chases & Gunfights!
★★
☆☆
Released: 
2003
Director: 
John Woo
Starring: 
Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti
The Setup: 
Guy does jobs then has the memories removed. On the last one, he gave up his multi-million payout--why would he do that?
Discussion: 

So at a certain point I just started needing to re-see all the lame sci-fi of the early 00s, honestly can't say why, and ended up with two crappy thrillers starring my honey Aaron Eckhart, the other one being The Core. This one is one of the billions of films based on (aka fucked up from) a Philip K. Dick short story, and the other thing I forgot about it is that it's directed by John Woo, during the brief period where he was trying to make American films. And failing.

So Ben Affleck is Mike Jennings, who reverse-engineers products for a living. That is, they buy a new project, he takes it apart and sees how it's made, improves it if he can, and then gives the plans to a competing company. For example, there's this computer monitor that is kind of 3D without glasses. Mike takes it, and uses advanced interactive graphics that seemingly hover in the air to pull it apart. He then delivers what is supposedly an amazing advance--the 3D monitor doesn't even need the monitor, as the images are holographically projected. But if you think for a second, if we just saw Mike using graphics that hover in the air, don't they obviously already HAVE this technology? Someone just didn't think that one through.

Anyway, then they erase Mike's memories of the whole thing, so he can't implicate the company that hired him. This movie displays its ignorance of brain functioning as it portrays the wiping of memories as a process of finding the individual neurons in which the supposedly stored, and zapping them with a laser. There is some false tension about how Mike's brain can't go above a certain temperature, or he'll become a vegetable, although it does go above this temperature with no consequences later, and the entire thing amounts to virtually nothing.

Mike is approached by Eckhart as Rethrick, and hired to do a big job, bigger than any he has done before, in which he will lose three years of his memories, but make a fuckton of money. He goes to a party, where he meets Uma Thurman as Rachel, who works downstairs at Rethrick's office, in a big lab that is doing something with plants. It's kind of an advanced computer / horticultural company, I'm sure you know the kind of thing I mean. They flirt a little bit, and, gee--I never noticed that Affleck was quite so handsome. Anyway, he goes in for the job, gets injected, and--THREE YEARS LATER!

Mike wakes. Job well done. All memories erased. He calculates that he has made 92 million dollars! All right! But when he goes in for his payment, he learns that he has forfeited all of his money, and the possessions returned to him are an envelope full of things like a lighter, paper clip, ID tag, key, pack of cigarettes, diamond ring, stuff like that, and stuff he doesn't recognize. He's confused--why would he do something like that? He has little time to wonder before he is brought in by the FBI! Whatever he did while he was out resulted in some sort of major crime, but Mike has no idea. Then, in the first massively ridiculous action scene, the FBI investigator decides to have a smoke, right there in the obviously no-smoking room, which causes the fire alarm to go off and fill the room with steam, which allows Mike to escape. He gets away to a hotel, where he arranges all of his little clues into a question mark, as any of us would probably do in just such a situation.

But guess what? Before his memory was wiped, Mike sabotaged the big machine he was working on, meaning that now Rethrick is shit outta luck. He's now after Mike, as well as the FBI, to get him to fix the machine. Mike calls his buddy Paul Giamatti as Shorty, and they meet in some sort of mall. That's when Mike realizes what is going on, and reveals the hook of the film: The machine Mike was working on allows it's user to see into the future. Some "science" around this is given that, if you invented a telescope powerful enough to see around the bend of the universe, you would eventually see yourself, in the future. Or something like that. Just go with it. So all of these little objects that Mike is carrying around in that manila envelope are things that will be EXACTLY what is needed to effect various escapes throughout the rest of the film, because he sent them back to himself for exactly this reason. Kind of a cool idea--too bad it came a bit too late, and a bit too convoluted, for it to be very effective.

SPOILERS > > >
Then follows a huge shootout in the mall. Then follows an escape via subway. Then Mike calls Rachel, which is intercepted by Rethrick, who sends in a fake Rachel. This is another of those good ideas, because Mike doesn't remember Rachel clearly. It also proves to be one of those ideas that the film manages to somehow muddle. Anyway, the real Rachel comes in and--another shootout! Another chase! This one occurs on a motorcycle, through a construction site, and in here you'll have cause to wonder--as has been percolating for quite a while--why Mike is still carrying that big envelope around. Like, why doesn't he just take everything out and put it in his pocket? Who knows. By now we've also noticed that Thurman is trying, or has been instructed, to make her character a little goofy and giggly, suppressing the natural intelligence that tends to come out in her acting, and resulting in her just seeming really odd and off.

So in another cool little thing that the movie again muffles, Mike has but a bunch of microscopic newspaper front pages into a stamp on his envelope (why there is postage on an envelope he did not mail is left unexplained), and these describe the future that is so awful. Rethrick used to machine to control various markets and seize control over, you know, something, and this resulted in global nuclear war. Womp Womp. Bad news. Sad face. So Mike knows what he must do: break into the lab, fix the machine, then destroy it. If you're wondering why he has to fix the machine prior to destroying it, well, so am I.

The reason proves to be: to provide dramatic tension. Rethrick let's them break in and fix it, bwah-ha-ha, sending out troops to capture them later. Mike fixes it and takes a little gander into his own future, seeing that he gets shot right upstairs! Oh dear. Then there's a massive shootout, as Rethrick's goons are trying to kill Mike, and the FBI is trying to get in. Mike showcases his stick-based martial arts, which were briefly introduced earlier in the film. It all leads to a climax on the catwalk above, site of Mike's future death, when suddenly everything stops so Woo can shoehorn in his "trademark" white dove. Then Mike realizes he's not seeing his own death, but Rethrick's, steps out of the way of the bullet, and allows Rethrick to get shot. Then the bombs go off and the whole machine explodes, saving humanity from itself, because no one apparently stored blueprints or plans anywhere else. There's a coda in which they're all happily ever after, because Mike left a winning lottery ticket for himself. There's an alternate ending on the disc, in which he gets his stolen ring back and asks for Rachel's hand. Then they're all happily in a truck, no lottery ticket. They're poor, but they've got love, etc.
< < < SPOILERS END

It could have been worse. Unfortunately, it could easily have been so much better. The story has a number of cool hooks--most notably the clues from the future to be used at various points--but they come too late in the story and are just somehow muddled when they do come. The set-up is fine, it's all going along fine, until you realize that you're just not that involved and it's failing to raise a pulse. Then the reveal about seeing the future and Mike's little items, and other cool reveals, but somehow they just don't really work. And finally you have to face that the movie is just somehow mediocre, it is squandering all of its opportunities. But by that time you have little left but chases and gunfights, chases and gunfights, and since your interest has already flagged, the movie is unable to make up the momentum.

It wasn't long into it before I realized this is a kind of Hitchcock-esque "innocent man on the run as he tries to clear his name" plot, and a viewing of the special features lets us know that Woo saw it that way, too, which is part of what resulted in Affleck being styled somewhat after Cary Grant. Too bad they pitched Thurman as a giggly ditz rather than an icy Hitchcock blonde. Watching Woo talk about how he intended the film, and his hopes for it--I know we're not supposed to say this, but--one suspects that a lot of the issues arise from having a barely English-speaking director trying to make an American action film. It's just OFF. The rhythms are OFF. The characters are OFF. Then one reflects that Woo's American action films never really worked, were always somewhat off (okay fine, Face/Off

Should you watch it: 

If you like cheesy sci-fi action with lots of chases.