Review by Paul Stathakis | 2003

Let’s face it, John Woo got lucky with “Face/Off.” The film con­tained a fair­ly orig­i­nal premise, decent dia­logue, fun char­ac­ters played by a sol­id cast, and excit­ing action sequences. Since then, Woo has con­tin­ued to con­tribute to the action genre, cre­at­ing some of the biggest dis­ap­point­ments like “Mis­sion: Impos­si­ble 2” and “Windtalk­ers.” But “Pay­check” is the real Woo dud, the real miss, the mis­take of all mis­takes. Watch­ing this film, we real­ly get the feel­ing Woo does­n’t care about his audi­ence anymore.

Michael Jen­nings (Ben Affleck) is a com­put­er reverse-engi­neer hired by huge cor­po­ra­tions to com­plete top-secret projects. But the sci­ence kick­er: every time he com­pletes a job, his mem­o­ry is erased to meet with strict com­pa­ny con­fi­den­tial­i­ty agree­ments. He nev­er remem­bers his work but always receives a large pay­check for it. But when Rethrick (Aaron Eck­hart), the head of the mis­trust­ful com­pa­ny All­com, hires Jen­nings for a three-year assign­ment to track down a machine that can see into the future, he promis­es him a larg­er-than-usu­al salary. Jen­nings accepts, com­pletes the mis­sion, gets his mem­o­ry wiped, and awak­ens to learn that he has agreed to for­feit all his mon­ey for an enve­lope filled with 19 per­son­al items.

The fun part is that Jen­nings does­n’t remem­ber any­thing. He does­n’t recall the terms of the deal and does­n’t under­stand why Fed­er­al agents, includ­ing Rethrick, are pur­su­ing him. But what Jen­nings does­n’t know is that the 19 items are all that stand between prov­ing him­self inno­cent and pre­vent­ing a cat­a­stroph­ic disaster.

Pay­check” is loose­ly based on a short sto­ry by Philip K. Dick, the author of “Blade Run­ner”, “Total Recall”, and “Minor­i­ty Report”. Enter­ing this movie, I thought to myself: a) John Woo is the mas­ter of action, b) Ben Affleck, Uma Thur­man, and Aaron Eck­hart aren’t the worst actors around, and c) Dick­’s fic­tion is usu­al­ly exhil­a­rat­ing. I tried set­ting myself up for a good time before “Pay­check” even started.

This 119 minute lack­lus­ter action sci-fi tale is noth­ing more than shame­ful and just plain bad. It is a movie built around a smart con­cept. The first 20 min­utes are actu­al­ly fun, but the prob­lem comes in when “Pay­check” starts try­ing to be smarter than it already is. The 19 clues are intrigu­ing at first; they help Jen­nings get around. But this idea becomes tire­some and corny. Woo spends his time plac­ing Affleck in dar­ing sit­u­a­tions only to let him get away in an exag­ger­at­ed man­ner. Here is a film that tries to be orig­i­nal in its inten­tions but fails on all fronts.

The action is lim­it­ed too, which is more of a dis­ap­point­ment than a sur­prise. With Woo, we expect breath­tak­ing explo­sions and chill­ing chas­es. He packed “Face/Off” with some of the best pyrotech­nics and even gave “Mis­sion: Impos­si­ble 2” some life with his action skills (as stretched as they were). But in “Pay­check” there are only two main chas­es: one on-foot and anoth­er on a BMW motor­cy­cle. I’ll admit that the motor­cy­cle scene was fun, but the film can’t live off one great moment. It spends the rest of its time mak­ing us laugh, involuntarily.

It always pains me to see films like “Pay­check” throw away a good sto­ry and turn it into messy cheese. I want­ed to like this movie and left the the­ater mock­ing every bit of it. Maybe I’m being a tad too cru­el or harsh but I won’t dare praise a movie that lacks char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, dia­logue, and sci-fi log­ic. By the time the film came to an end, I want­ed to be the one strapped to a chair wait­ing to have my mem­o­ry wiped.


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