Monday 7 November 2011

Movie Review: Paycheck (2003)

A kinetic techno-thriller that gradually erodes intelligence for the sake of mindless action, Paycheck starts with an intriguing premise but ends in routine over-the-top car chases, shoot-outs and explosions.

Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a high-tech reverse engineer. Hired by companies who need to uncover the secrets of their competitors, Jennings deciphers the code residing in the latest tech gadgets, allowing companies to close critical innovation gaps. For his troubles, he receives large paychecks but also has his memory wiped after each assignment.

Jennings is hired by James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), an old friend and now the megarich CEO of technology firm Allcom. Rethrick offers Jennings share options worth tens of millions of dollars in exchange for three years of engineering work on a secret project involving lasers and lenses. Just before starting his assignment, Jennings meets and flirts hopelessly with Dr. Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman), a biologist who works for Rethrick.

Three years later, Jennings leaves Allcom with no memory of what he worked on. To his horror, he discovers that he has forfeited his shares, now worth $90 million, and instead mailed himself an envelope filled with seemingly random trinkets. He is promptly arrested by the FBI and accused of treason. Jennings escapes, but is relentlessly pursued by Allcom assassins. Gradually he comes to realize that the project he worked on has far reaching destructive implications for humanity, and he teams up with Rachel to try and shut down his own invention, using the items in the envelope to help overcome key obstacles.

The action sequences in Paycheck are well constructed, particularly the prolonged chase scene involving a motorcycle and multiple vehicles. Director John Woo is in his element filming objects colliding at high speed, and he wraps the thrills with a shiny gloss. But all of the second half of the film defaults to a sequence of chases, gun-play, and brawls, and most of the clever science that drives the plot is abandoned.

The high-tech company Allcom is revealed to be an unlikely source of an infinite number of goons and guards with machine-guns, rivalling the command centre of the most over-the-top megalomaniac Bond villain. The Dean Georgaris script therefore demands that Affleck morph Jennings from an engineer to an indestructible action hero dodging an endless stream of bullets, while Thurman's Doctor Porter suddenly becomes a resourceful kick-ass sidekick. Neither are convincing.

Which is all a pity, since the first half of Paycheck is an engaging look at the high-stakes world of industrial espionage and reverse-engineering, boosted by the science fiction of memory wipes. Affleck is much more comfortable as a mercenary engineer selling his services to tech companies desperate to catch-up with their rivals, and Thurman almost pulls off the role of an academic researcher, although exactly what it is that she does at Allcom is never fully explained.

Eckhart creates in Rethrick a reasonable corporate villain, at least until he starts commanding an army of henchmen, and Paul Giamatti as Jennings' loyal friend adds good personality to the supporting cast.

Paycheck is half of a smart movie, while the other half bounces due to insufficient intelligence.

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