Affleck, Woo, and Thurman collect a "Paycheck"

by Eric Melin on January 9, 2004

in Print Reviews

How many reviews have you read of “Paycheck” that featured some clever quip along the lines of this:

“‘Paycheck’ is so bad that star Ben Affleck and director John Woo must have been simply thinking about their paycheck!”

Any reviewer worth his salt in soundbites could’ve come up with that one. And they’d be right. Only, the truth is, “Paycheck” deserves way, way more scorn than that. It is, quite simply, a limp and disastrous waste of all talents involved.

First off, we have a screenplay based on a short story by the late visionary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. The premise of the movie is an interesting moral dilemma, and Dick’s novels have mined that territory countless times. His tales are almost all cautionary ones, and this is no exception.

In the near-future, giant corporations ask engineers to rip off another firm’s work, and then erase that person’s memory of ever doing the illegal job. “Paycheck” asks whether millions of dollars are worth three entire years of your life and all of those memories. Affleck’s slimy character, of course, decides that the trade-off is worth it.

When he is revived with the last three years erased, the police and the corporation’s henchmen are after him. Affleck gradually discovers that during that lost time, he invented a machine that is able to see into the future. Hence, he has mailed himself a package containing everyday items that, if used in the right place at the right time, will make already poorly executed action scenes seem even more ridiculous than they already are! 

That’s it. These items are supposed to help him change his future, but in this movie, their sole purpose is as a launchpad for silly action scenes.

Where’s Richard Dean Anderson when you need him? What we’ve got here is a futuristic “MacGyver”! This is not science fiction. Science fiction is supposed to revolve around ideas, not merely be set in the future. It reduces a premise rife with possibility to being a set-up for car chases in junkyards with pipes that are coincidentally just big enough for cars to drive through, and a gunfight in the worst 80s-looking bio-dome since, well, “Bio-Dome.”

Secondly, we have Ben Affleck. What is the deal with his movie choices lately? Thank God he has a Kevin Smith movie (“Jersey Girl”) coming out soon, because those seem to be the only movies he’s good in anymore. I haven’t seen “Gigli,” but I do know that “Daredevil” was one of the worst movies I saw this past year, and I even saw that one for free.

Instead of keeping the unseemly edge that his character has at the beginning of the film, Affleck treads water, lost in a role that reverts to a bunch of surprised looks and some standard action dialogue.

Thirdly, there’s Uma Thurman, who was so fantastic in the psycho-crazy revenge pic “Kill Bill: Volume 1,” turning what could have been just a violent kung-fu flick into a gut-wrenching girl empowerment flick.

It’s too bad she couldn’t do anything here, but look at what she had to work with: “I thought you didn’t believe in second chances,” Thurman says, referring to an earlier scene where Affleck said he didn’t believe in second chances.

“I’m starting to,” Affleck says, looking into her eyes.

From kick-ass number one gurl to sidekick girlfriend in just three months.


Lastly, we have director John Woo. He’s famous for his double-barreled gun-toting Hong Kong action flicks, but since coming to America, his record is pretty spotty. “Face/Off” was lots of fun, and “Mission Impossible 2” wasn’t half bad, but “Broken Arrow” and “Hard Target” sucked ass.

“Paycheck” is his worst movie to date.

I never thought I would have to confess that a Woo film would have lame action scenes, but that time has sadly come. In “Face/Off,” he used some of his trademarks (like slo-mo shots of doves flying right before the doom begins), and it played like an homage to his earlier HK pics. But, in the hollow movie-going experience that was “Paycheck,” the dove flies through a door just before a gunman does. It’s just insulting.

Woo has a flair for simple themes like love, grief, friendship and brotherhood. In his best films, those themes survive beyond the carnage and action. But, beyond that, he has proven that he is ill-suited to handle too much else. “Paycheck” could have really used a more capable juggler of its ideas.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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