Woo Writes Off a Blank Paycheck
By Fernando F. Croce

Unintentional as it may be, there's a bit of poetic justice to Paycheck, the new futuristic thriller -- not only is the title a perfect expression of the thrust behind the whole project (big-star green and box-office booty), but the film itself, toying with notions of memory and recall, is fittingly enough one of the season's most synthetically forgettable.

The plot, set in an unspecified future, is based on a 1953 short story by Philip K. Dick, Hollywood's drug of choice when it comes to technological paranoia (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report). Like much of Dick's work, it abounds in conspiracy and big-business skullduggery, only this time the Everyman on the run is Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), hotshot engineer and corporate tool extraordinaire. As the film opens, he's renting himself out as computer expert to megacompanies, coming up with high-tech ideas and then, to protect the firm's secrets, having his memory whipped clean in a pressure cooker gadget. Emerging from a three-year stint cracking down a top secret time-traveling project for a powerful colleague (Aaron Eckhart), however, he finds not his usual fat paycheck but trenchcoated thugs and FBI agents waiting for him.

Why does everyone want Jennings dead? Who's the beautiful scientist (Uma Thurman) whom he loves even though he can't recall her? And what about those twenty clues he carries along inside a manila envelope? The erased- memory gimmick allows the film to milk its bewildered protagonist's fall from callow whiz kid to Hitchcockian fugitive for all its worth, even if it carves plot complexity and resonance for explosions and vertiginous chases. And explosions and vertiginous chases, sadly, are what director John Woo has become exclusively synonymous with. As a fan, there's nothing I'd like better than to say that the maverick of Hong Kong action cinema has, as countless other émigré artists, matured and expanded since coming to Hollywood. Unfortunately, the opposite has taken place -- with the exception of Face/Off and bits of Hard Target, Woo's work has gradually morphed into a smooth, cool impersonality that's literally a continent away from the whirring audacity of The Killer and Bullet in the Head.

Paycheck, even more than Mission: Impossible II, is another step closer to hackdom. Taking over the reins at the last minute from Brett Ratner (who'd probably have been a better choice, since he has no personality to obliterate), Woo keeps the film moving with mechanical flair, the camera in near constant motion. A couple of moments, such as a cafe rendezvous with an agent masquerading as Jennings' beloved, display tingling cinematic assurance, but for the most part Woo's trademark tics (slow-mo, freeze frames, bullet ballets, flapping doves) are brought out dutifully, perfunctorily. Even worse, they are applied like cosmetics to the surface of the stoyline, with no connection made to all the themes scuttling underneath. Dick's original story has a wealth of futuristic moral anxiety, though Woo and his scriptwriter, Dean Georgaris, are less interested in the h's ethical transformation than in bikes zipping through construction ducts. There is nothing in the entirety of Paycheck that comes even close to the first ten minutes of Spielberg's Minority Report, a masterpiece of kinetics bleeding into morality.

Affleck doesn't help. Still nursing his Gigli welts, as an action hero he's an even bigger twit than his buddy Matt Damon was in The Bourne Identity. In his balsa-wood style, he's a throwback to such '50s wax dummies as Troy Donahue or John Gavin, laboratory good looks with all the insides left out -- maybe Douglas Sirk could have done something with him. Eckhart, Neil LaBute's favorite nihilist (In the Company of Men), coasts on his reptilian handsomeness and fearsome chin, while Paul Giamatti labors for laughs as Affleck's slobby buddy. Most dispiriting of all is Thurman, a sublime Valkyrie in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 reduced here to lachrymose Love Interest.

Science fiction aficionados will still want to check it out, however, and the picture does offer a relatively exciting and ingenious alternative to the paralyzing flood of Oscar-baiting "quality" in theaters now. But in a genre that has, from Fritz Lang to Kubrick to Spielberg, shown that thrills need not be separated from art, simply working for your Paycheck is not enough anymore.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on January 6, 2004.

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