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Dustin Putman

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Paycheck (2003)
2 Stars

Directed by John Woo
Cast: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Peter Friedman, Michael C. Hall, Kathryn Morris, Ivana Milicevic
2003 – 117 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and brief language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 27, 2003.

The latest adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story (following 1982's "Blade Runner," 2002's "Impostor," and 2002's "Minority Report"), "Paycheck" is director John Woo's (2002's "Windtalkers") answer to telling one of the author's science-fiction tales. Woo, however, doesn't seem to be as interested in his futuristic premise and technology as he is in filming high-speed chases and blowing things up. While the tautly paced "Paycheck" succeeds at keeping your attention, it offers nothing at all to think about or even remember once its two hours have run their course. In other words, its potentially thought-provoking ideas about the future and the value of one's memory are lost upon a series of gaping plot holes and generic action stunts.

Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is an engineer who makes his money from billionaire boss Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) by working on top-secret projects and then agreeing to have his memory erased to cover their tracks. When Michael's latest assignment offers him $92-million in exchange for three years of his life that he won't remember after the fact, he can't refuse. But when the time is over, he is distraught to find that the money he was supposed to be paid has been canceled. In its place are twenty seemingly random items (a lighter, a bus ticket, hairspray, etc.) that create a puzzle Michael is not sure how to figure out. With Rethrick and his henchmen hot on his tail, Michael pairs up with scientist Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman), his girlfriend from the three years he can't remember, to solve the puzzle and possibly stop an ill-fated predestined future that could cost them their lives.

"Paycheck" is a diverting entertainment that, unfortunately, does not divert enough to cover up its many inadequacies. As a sci-fi picture, it fails enormously. The time period in which the film is set is never made clear, and director John Woo shows no interest in developing the plot or explaining the technology that plays such a vital role in the proceedings. The story can be followed, but in doing so one must experience one too many leaps in logic to get there. The key to a successful genre flick is in taking its subject matter seriously and treating it in a realistic manner. "Paycheck" does not do this.

The action setpieces, including a motorcycle chase, a chase through the Seattle subway, and a laboratory shoot-out, are rousing and come at a quick enough clip to keep the movie from growing tiresome. They break no new ground, and are cliches, but Woo shoots and edits them in a pulse-pounding manner. It should be said, though, that the placement of a white dove—Woo's trademark visual—during the climax is an extraneous, jarring addition that takes you out of the moment.

Ben Affleck (whose 2003's "Gigli" was a vastly underrated movie) is a convincing actor who disappears into his roles, something that he often is overlooked for. He works as a romantic lead, as a sidekick, and he capably fulfills the requirements of an action hero here. As his Michael Jennings attempts to unravel the mysteries that surround him, we are more than happy to follow him because he is genuinely likable. Uma Thurman is fine, but underused, as love interest Rachel Porter, perhaps because she had so much more to do (and was the butt-kicking star herself) in 2003's "Kill Bill: Vol. One."

Whether or not "Paycheck" is worth seeing depends on how die-hard a fan you are of the action genre. As such, it is exciting and refuses to lag for a moment, but there is nothing on display that really would warrant a trip to the movie theater. The film is mostly forgettable, barrenly developed from a sci-fi standpoint, and will likely play better on the small screen with the surround sound speakers amped up. "Paycheck" is akin to a technically well-made straw house that doesn't have the strength to withhold a gust of wind.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman