After the high-octane stylish thrill rides of films like Broken Arrow (1996), Face/Off (1997) and Mission: Impossible II (2000), John Woo ventured into different territory with the uneven Windtalkers (2002). Looking to return to his action roots, he came back with techno-thriller Paycheck…which, unfortunately, wasn’t received very well.
But now that the impressiveness of films like Face/Off (1997) aren’t quite so prominent, would Paycheck turn out to be better than expected?
Ben Affleck gets a lot of…ahem…flack…for his acting – while his best friend, Matt Damon, gets nothing but accolades. Still, Affleck pushes on, and does his best to try to prove his critics wrong. True, his best acting has been in his briefer roles (Boiler Room (2000)), and his best moments have since occurred behind the camera (Gone Baby Gone (2007)), but he still isn’t half-bad in front of the camera.
But, like his roles in The Sum of All Fears (2002) and DareDevil (2003), there seems to be just a little something lacking in his performance in Paycheck. Maybe it’s just the viewer gets a little sick of his pretty-boy airs he seems to not be able to shake. Or maybe he just doesn’t seem quite right for the parts. Either way, the viewer never quite buys his performance, despite a good effort on his part, and has to rely on the rest of the film to keep them tuning in.
Uma Thurman, who’s shown she can be the lead all by herself (Kill Bill), is a bit lacking in Paycheck as well. She turns in yet another decent but uninspiring performance. Aaron Eckhart, who would later go on to become a leading man himself in films like The Core (2003) and Thank You For Smoking, seems to be phoning in his performance as well. The usually underestimated Paul Giamatti is once again tossed aside early on.
With the actors not showing any real aspirations at impressiveness, it’s left to the storyline to step it up. Thankfully, that’s where Paycheck shines. With a mystery viewers will easily find themselves caught up in, the storyline takes the so-so performances to the next level. It manages to make the film a nail-biter almost in spite of the actors. Sure, Affleck never really quite fits the part, but the mystery surrounding his character’s recent history is engrossing enough to keep the viewer tuning in anyway. Of course, since the film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story – like Minority Report (2002), Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall (1990), to name a few – that’s really no surprise.
It’s the sheer normality with the direction of that intriguing storyline that will have viewers shaking their heads in disappointment, oddly enough. With a master of action like director John Woo at the helm, viewers will expect to be blown away by his visual styles. Yet, Paycheck, is oddly lacking in that very department. No big slow-motion escapades. No follow-every-bullet visuality that made sequences in Face/Off (1997) and Woo’s other previous action films feel like masterpieces of art and sound. Instead, viewers are left with gunfights they’ve seen hundreds of times before, and very little of Woo’s trademark visual alacrity.
Maybe Woo was having an off day. Or maybe he caught the actors ho-hum vibe and turned in a phone-in performance himself. Either way, Paycheck, while wrapped around an electrifying storyline, never quite reaches it’s potential. Instead it feels, especially as it nears the climax and starts losing it’s storyline, it is more a hasty afterthought rather than the well-planned visual imagery mystery fest it could have been.
That’s not to say that Paycheck isn’t enjoyable. It is…but even as the viewer hangs on the film’s next revelation, they’ll start getting the feeling that Paycheck could have been great, rather than good. And that’s just plain disappointing.