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It's a modest payoff

Paycheck, despite having higher aspirations, must content itself with being a familiar, yet fun, action movie.

Published December 25, 2003

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There's something vaguely familiar about Paycheck, the fun and fast-paced, if disposable, sci-fi movie directed by action ace John Woo.

Woo's film, based on a story by Philip K. Dick, is reminiscent of the Dick-inspired Total Recall and Minority Report, mixed with traces of Memento. Viewers, too, might be reminded of The Bourne Identity. Don't remember any of those movies? Consider it fresh.

Ben Affleck is Michael Jennings, this movie's sort-of amnesiac on the run. He's a high-tech engineer with a taste for the good life who works as a "reverse engineer," someone who takes apart the inventions of others and figures out how to re-create or improve them for less-than-ethical entrepreneurs.

Now he has built a device sure to spell the end of the world as we know it if it winds up in the wrong hands, as these things are wont to do.

Here's the twist: Jennings has no recollection of creating the doomsday machine, which allows its viewers to see into the future. He willingly short-circuited his own memory, wiping out everything that happened over three years, including a relationship with a beautiful biologist (Uma Thurman), in exchange for a $90-million-plus pay day.

But instead of exiting with a big payoff, he's left with only a packet of unfamiliar belongings, including a quarter, a vial of ball bearings, a book of matches and a can of hair spray.

Making matters worse, he's accused of espionage by the hot-in-pursuit FBI, and he's engaged in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with security goons working for his old employer. Each item represents a bread crumb back to the future.

Woo, opening his film with split screens and jagged jump-cuts, has pretensions to something as thoughtful and provocative as the source material, which was more concerned with philosophical questions - man's moral responsibilities, etc. - than with sleek high-tech surfaces.

But the director ultimately reverts to form, wrapping a brisk, smartly executed chase film in sci-fi clothing. Bothersome strategy? I forget.


Grade: B-

Director: John Woo

Cast: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall

Screenplay: Dean Georgaris (based on a Philip K. Dick story)

Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity

Running time: 119 min.

[Last modified December 24, 2003, 10:14:49]

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