Let’s say you have an action movie where a man is the main character, and the woman in a supporting role is romantically involved with him. Is it possible to avoid turning the woman into a damsel in distress?
It’s an overlooked movie, an overlooked role for Uma Thurman, and as movies go it’s not the greatest, but 2003’s Paycheck treats its heroine right. They don’t doll her up. They don’t wash out her personality. And she’s all about using a wrench to beat the hell out of anything that gets in her way.
Thurman plays Dr. Rachel Porter, a biologist who works for a Big Corporation that ensnares Ben Affleck’s character in its Evil Web of Doom. When Rachel meets Ben Affleck’s Michael Jennings at a party early in the film, he’s a jackass. You know that scene in the movies where the jackass guy hits on the woman who’s too good for him, and she blows him off, but you can tell she secretly thinks it’s cool to be treated like that?
Instead, she tells Michael exactly how he needs to improve his behavior if he wants to interact with her. On their next meeting, at the Big Corporation, she knocks him down another peg for good measure.
The next time we see them interact, she’s smacking an imitation spy Rachel in the head with a heavy messenger bag in order to save Michael’s butt.
In between, it seems that Michael and Rachel have fallen in love. He doesn’t remember her, of course, since his profession is to reverse engineer technology under contract and have his memory erased at the end of each job. However, he seems to have changed a lot on an emotional level. The new Michael treats Rachel as an equal, not as a mark in a singles bar who should be impressed with his looks and his wealth.
The film’s creators also treat Rachel as his equal, as she and Michael trade off protecting each other in the chaos that follows. When they’re fleeing, she’s one step ahead of him in figuring out the escape route. During a motorcycle chase, they split up to work as a team. He doesn’t try to protect her, she doesn’t cling to him. He says “I’ll come back and get you.” She says “See ya.” Then she takes off to get the job done.
Don’t get me wrong, Michael is the main character. During the climactic fight, he is the center of attention and Rachel is in a support role. However, Paycheck is a good example of how a woman in an action movie can be a secondary character without being dependent. Rachel is in a support role in that fight because the bad guys are trying to kill Michael, not because she is weak and incapable of fending for herself.
Michael finally does try to protect her by removing her from the action, but their relationship has been portrayed evenly up until that point. As a result, it rang true that this action was taken out of love, not paternalism, because the film’s creators have so clearly demonstrated that she didn’t need protecting. Similarly, Rachel’s pain when she initially discovers that Michael does not remember their relationship felt to me like pain, not a plot device to reinforce Michael’s desirability or her vulnerability. Even the Bad Guys know that she hasn’t sold herself out in her relationship with Michael. “Rachel wouldn’t be hurt if he hesitated,” the imitator spy Rachel is advised, “She’d be impatient.”
So Paycheck earns its stars for Uma Thurman kicking ass. Now here’s the part where I note that I’m pretty sure there’s only one person of color in this movie. His name is Joe Morton, and he has a minor role as a cop who stands out from his colleagues for having integrity. Before beginning this blog, I knew intellectually that people of color were underrepresented in movies. It is something different, however, to write review after review and make the same conclusion every time – particularly when there is no reason in the world that I can see to avoid casting more actors who happen to be people of color. Nothing in this movie, or in most of the movies I’ve reviewed here, is specific to a time and place that would require all the actors to be white for historical veracity.
As the Angry Black Woman says, “Why is the universe so damn white?” If even a white girl like me is noticing, you really have a problem. Heck, people, it’s speculative fiction. Speculate a little, why don’t you? Speculate about what it would be like if you increased diversity in casting by even 20%. I bet it would amaze you.
So Paycheck gets three stars, because Uma Thurman is a strong heroine but the movie’s not that great and Joe Morton must have been lonely. If you’re a fan of Philip K. Dick, science fiction generally, or Uma Thurman bashing up things with a wrench, you might want to check it out.
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.