Ben Affleck has had such a rough year (or so I've read) that it almost seems unfair to pick on either his newest film or latest nontabloid performance. Still, in the interest of stargazing and semiotics, it does seem worth mentioning that Affleck, a movie actor of some callow charm, has recently taken to dividing his performances between lowered-chin sensitivity for his smaller, more complex roles and big-chin brashness for his more costly studio gigs. "Paycheck" is big chin all the way.
Directed without personal feeling and evident interest by John Woo, and written by Dean Georgaris from a short story by the most talented science-fiction writer in Hollywood, the late Philip K. Dick, "Paycheck" starts with a bang. Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a hotshot engineer who steals ideas on behalf of whomever is writing the check. When the film opens, he's being escorted into a hermetically sealed room with an out-of-the-box computer monitor.
Several months later, he exits solitary confinement with a modified monitor (he's junked the plastic casing, leaving just the screen image). The suits paying him seem pleased, and the deal seals after Michael's memory of the last few months is erased, leaving him and the merchants protected.
So far, so good -- and it gets better, at least briefly, when Michael agrees to a considerably longer job. Seduced by a colossal paycheck and smooth promises (from Aaron Eckhart, on the verge of locking himself into stereotype), Michael agrees to work on an unidentified project for three years. Soon after he exits his temporary tomb, one of those corporate mausoleums where people are always busily rushing through corridors on unspecified important business, he realizes that somewhere along his blanked-out three years, something went wrong. Armed with an envelope of baffling trinkets and junk -- a paper clip, a metro card, sunglasses, even a raggedly torn-out newspaper crossword puzzle -- Michael soon discovers that he's actually carrying clues to a crime in which he's either the hero or the villain.
Although the promised John Woo movie never emerges, "Paycheck" furnishes some low-level, cheap entertainment for about an hour. Affleck and his chin are in fine form, bursting through doors and down corridors with impressive energy. Someone has packed some fine character actors into the mix, including Paul Giamatti, who really deserves a fat studio paycheck after his nice work in the independent film, "American Splendor." Giamatti doesn't have to do very much as Michael's only friend except look alarmed, which he does very well. Also on hand are Colm Feore, Joe Morton and Michael C. Hall, all welcome faces, especially because after the first hour the film rapidly devolves into an overextended generic chase, complete with the usual car crashes and fireballs of death.
Uma Thurman has the most thankless role in "Paycheck," both because it involves a lot of smiling at Affleck and because she's been very badly lighted and photographed. Woo has never been terribly good when it comes to romances between men and women, but here he's also deeply uninspired when it comes to the sort of male-on-male love and hate for which he's known. Perhaps because there wasn't enough money (the look is knockoff Sharper Image), the film feels cheap, frayed around the edges. Even Woo's trademark moves -- a bird fluttering in slow motion, men jamming guns in each other's faces -- feel recycled, as if he were taking requests from the audience rather than putting a new kink in the genre.
"Paycheck" is the sort of noisy nonsense that Woo's earlier action movies made irrelevant, but alas not extinct.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense action, violence & brief language
Times guidelines: The usual mayhem
Ben Affleck...Michael Jennings
Uma Thurman...Rachel Porter
Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures present a Davis Entertainment Co./Lion Rock production in association with Solomon/Hackett Productions, released by Paramount Pictures. Director John Woo. Screenwriter Dean Georgaris. Based on the short story by Philip K. Dick. Producers John Davis, Michael Hackett, John Woo, Terence Chang. Director of photography Jeffrey L. Kimball. Production designer William Sandell. Editors Kevin Stitt, Christopher Rouse. Costume designer Erica Edell Phillips. Music John Powell. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.
In general release.