'I don't know about Daredevil 2... You'll know my career is really on the slide when I start resurrecting the franchise.' - Ben Affleck
For a writer who isn't especially well-known out amongst the normal real-world public, Philip K Dick has achieved an odd sort of ubiquity when it comes to SF movies. Well, perhaps 'ubiquitous' is stretching it a bit, considering we're talking about four movies in twenty or so years, but - off the top of my head - I can't think of another writer in the genre with that kind of recent track record.
It doesn't hurt that, broadly speaking, three of the four were quite well received - Blade Runner regularly scores in top ten popularity lists (although personally I haven't much time for it and prefer the original cut - or, better yet, the source novel), Total Recall was a big smash hit, and Minority Report was rapturously hailed as a return to form for Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. However, the latest Dick movie, Paycheck, has arrived on UK screens to be met with notices verging on the toxic.
As director John Woo has many cheerleaders in the States (more likely as a result of his terrific Hong Kong-based movies than the rather mixed bag he's presided over since going Hollywood), and this film isn't utterly wretched, one can only presume the knives are out simply because Paycheck stars Ben Affleck. Ah, Ben Affleck. For a while now I've found having a pop at Ben to be a bit of a guilty pleasure, because in interviews and the like he comes across as a decent bloke with terrible instincts as to which scripts he should make.
This time round Ben plays Michael Jennings, a highly-paid expert in taking things to pieces and copying them. This is a much valued ability in the world of industrial espionage, but for Ben the downside - or maybe not - is that he has to have his memory of each assignment wiped after completing it (you can imagine the scene - 'While you're at it, could you get rid of Pearl Harbor, Gigli, and that full-page ad to J-Lo I put in the national press, please?'). His trusty sidekick Shorty (Paul Giamatti) is responsible for microwaving his brain on each occasion.
Ben is recruited by his old mate Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) to do a special job that will take three years to finish but earn him nearly a hundred million dollars. Ben is happy to sign up, especially as he has a bit of a thing for another of Eckhart's employees, hatchet-faced biologist Rachel (played by that leading grand guignol comedienne of our time, Uma Thurman, in an unflattering hairstyle). However three years and one memory-wipe later Ben is alarmed to find he has chosen to waive his fee in favour of a envelope full of junk. It transpires that the pre-wipe Ben has built Eckhart a precognotron for seeing into the future, and, having sneaked a peek himself, has realised that the junk comprises the objects his future self will need in order to avoid meeting a sticky end at the hands of his evil boss...
Well, yes, it's hokum of the highest order, but it's an engaging enough idea and not without its' thoughtful moments. While the plot bears similarities to Total Recall (hero has his memory messed about with) and Minority Report (hero sees vision of future he's not too keen on), it's closer to the former in style. This is just as well, as the lack of Minority Report's ponderous self-importance makes the occasionally incoherent plotting a lot less annoying. On the other hand, this never quite takes flight as a Hitchcock-style 'innocent man in peril' caper, as Ben's character just isn't likeable (or innocent) enough at the start of the movie for the audience to really warm to him. Ben himself turns in another stiff-upper-lipped performance. (In fact a lot of the time his entire face is utterly immobile.) But there's not much meat here for any of the actors - Giamatti goes into twitchy overdrive as the comic relief, before vanishing entirely for most of the second half of the film, while quite a way down the cast list Joe Morton and Michael C Hall are solid enough as FBI agents chasing Ben.
There isn't actually very much here to distinguish Paycheck as a John Woo film, except perhaps several scenes revolving around people sticking guns in each others' faces, and an inexplicable sequence with a dove. The action isn't that great and a long car-chase is actually rather pedestrian. But, as action techno-thrillers go, this is really pretty competent stuff, rather retro in an odd way (the suits and hairstyles of many characters look like seventies-vintage), quite well paced and not without some interesting ideas about memory and predestination.
But Ben's clearly going to have to come up with something else if he wants to arrest his slide towards becoming the 21st century's answer to Charlie Sheen. If, as seems the case, mediocre movies are now getting completely trashed simply because he's in them, it'll have to be something special. A serious rethink is called for, or he'll be slipping on the red leather jumpsuit sooner than he'd like...