John Woo loves doves. Loves them enough that he’ll ram a laughably digital dove down your throat in all of his movies. They’re symbolic, don’t you see?
One unnecessarily flew through a blown-up doorway in Mission: Impossible 2 and might have worn a combat helmet and shouldered an assault rifle in last year’s dreary war film Windtalkers.
But the dove moment in Paycheck, equally fake and unnecessary, made me give up. No longer will I wait with geek-boy giddiness for any more of his Americanized action fests. In an already assembly-line sci-fi mess, this was just a head-shaking capper to an intense fall from grace.
Woo’s grandiose action-as-ballet technique, best shown in his Hong Kong films of the 1980s, has translated well stateside before. M:I2 blended sweat, sex and stunts, and even a B-movie like Broken Arrow was propulsive fun.
He’s even combined sci-fi with action before in the superior guns-blazing Face/Off. But Paycheck is pseudo-ponderous junk with plot holes more gaping than the slack-jawed stare of star Ben Affleck, who forces his own fetish — the Boston Red Sox — as an unnecessary plot point.
Straight from the Revlon makeover, Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a black-market scientist who swipes computer companies’ creations to illegally improve them for competitors. So he and the companies can’t get in trouble, the memories of his work are erased after he’s finished.
He then takes an unprecedented three-year job for Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart, all bluster) with the promise of an eight-figure payout at the end. When Michael comes to, he’s been stiffed on the money, left with only a manila envelope full of knick-knacks and grilled by G-men on the work he’s done that “threatens national security.”
On the run from both Rethrick’s hatchet men and the FBI, Michael learns the knick-knacks are MacGyver-style lifesavers for situations he’s already foreseen. Along with his girlfriend, Rachel (Uma Thurman), he must stop his own invention from falling into Rethrick’s evil control.
Affleck can be great in the right hands (Changing Lanes) but is confused-looking most other times. Donatello the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle looked more convincing swinging his wooden staff around karate-style than Affleck does here with his grunting and grimacing. Between him and buddy Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity, it’s hard to gauge whose kung fu is sillier.
The film’s lone bright acting spots are Thurman, all leading-lady sunshine before sliding into Kill Bill mode, dispatching about five guys while Affleck struggles with one. And comic-relief champion Paul Giamatti shows up briefly before disappearing until the film’s truly inane resolution.
When not aesthetically name-dropping Hitchcock and De Palma, Woo does throw in an exciting, if ludicrous, car-versus-motorcycle chase through a stockyard. But the laboratory climax is just lots of glass breaking and Affleck and Thurman doing the hero leap onto what looks like a giant shower curtain.
Sure, doves might be symbolic for many of the classic struggles in film and literature. But something those doves drop from their business end embodies what Paycheck is really all about.