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29 June, 2004

Review: Paycheck (2003)

I visited J and Fiona on Saturday, ostensibly to watch a DVD with them, but mainly to just catch up with them after their holiday in Ontario.  For some reason, I found the title of their chosen DVD, 'Paycheck', misleading, even discouraging.  I think I somehow equated it with 'Phone Booth', a film I have no particular interest in seeing.
Yet some of my favourite films have been those about which I knew virtually nothing in advance, no preconceptions raising expectations to be disappointed, nor plot details revealed out of sequence.  It's difficult to believe given the subsequent acclaim, but when I first saw 'The Matrix', I knew absolutely nothing about it, and was totally blown away; I went back to the cinema the very next evening, which I'd never done before, nor since.

'Paycheck' isn't great, but I did enjoy it, and recommend it to others.  It's slightly odd that I hadn't heard anything about it beforehand, which rather implies it went 'straight to DVD' here in the UK.  If there's any purpose to this review, it's to bring the film to wider attention.

It's a sci-fi film, but not overwhelmingly so; it would be as accurate to describe it as a decent contemporary action thriller directed by John Woo, with the visual style/pacing that implies. It has a '12' certificate in the UK, so is obviously less graphically violent than earlier Woo films.

To reveal much of the plot would destroy the advantage of approaching 'blind', as mentioned above, but merely to set the context: Michael Jennings is a brilliant freelance electronics engineer, played by Ben Affleck (okay, okay; bear with me), hired by international corporations to reverse engineer the cutting-edge products of their rivals. This is obviously top-secret, so each project ends with Jennings' memory of it being erased. After an extra-special job, he finds that three years of memories are gone, including why he forfeited the $90 million paycheck, only accepting an envelope containing trivial items he doesn't even recognise.

If I hadn't known this was based on a Philip K. Dick story, I might have guessed, as there's a very similar feel to that of 'Total Recall', not only in the central premise that the lead character has lost his memory, but in the whole feel of a little man being pursued by an omnipotent corporation, an apparently ordinary person who finds himself extraordinary when pushed. Both films are presented from the perspective of that oppressed character, the audience discovering clues at the same time as the protagonist. As in 'Total Recall', Jennings' main ally is his omniscient former self.

The casting seemed a little odd, particularly the leads, Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. However, suspension of disbelief was assisted by good costumes. Dr.Porter was a convincing research biologist, not merely Thurman in a labcoat, whilst the 'villain', Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), appeared entirely credible as a company CEO. Ben Affleck is a little too heavily-built to truly pass as an engineer, but his suit and hair fitted the corporate image well, to the extent that parts of the film had a somewhat 60s/70s feel.
With a small number of specific exceptions, technology and the urban setting seemed entirely contemporary, which is the type of sci-fi I like: realistic people reacting credibly to a small number of high-tech changes in a realistic world. Once a film gets into spaceships, warp speeds and light sabers, I slightly lose interest.

In case I'd missed anything obvious in writing this review, I just checked the film's entry at the IMDb, and see the consensus rating is 5.9/10. I'd give it an 7 or 8, but apparently there are numerous technical errors, particularly in the way handguns really operate (that in itself is an aspect of John Woo's style!), which seem to have ruined credibility for some. Now it's been pointed out, one is particularly glaring, but ultimately doesn't matter to me.

Definitely one to rent, but probably not buy. It'll be on TV eventually, anyway.

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