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"PAYCHECK"
(2003) (Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-fi: A high-tech contractor tries to sort through the clues he apparently left himself regarding the previously erased memories of his past deeds, all before his previous employers have him killed.
PLOT:
It's 2004 and Michael Jennings (BEN AFFLECK) is a scientist who's hired by high tech companies to steal and improve upon proprietary programs and equipment. His temporary employers don't worry about any confidentiality issues, however, since Michael's agent, Shorty (PAUL GIAMATTI), is contractually obligated to erase all of Michael's memory regarding his secret work.

His latest client, Jimmy Rethrick (AARON ECKHART), is an old friend who dangles a lucrative proposition in front of him. For three years of work - all of which we'll be gone from his memory in an instant when he's done - he'll walk away a very rich man. Realizing he won't miss what he can't recall, Michael agrees, especially when he sees that he'll be working with Rachel Porter (UMA THURMAN), a biologist.

Three years later, he's done and goes to cash out his account, only to discover that he supposedly signed away $92 million in exchange for an envelope containing various everyday items. Michael's obviously upset and doesn't recall doing so, thus putting him in a unique bind.

Things become more complicated when FBI agents Dodge (JOE MORTON) and Klein (MICHAEL C. HALL) arrest and begin interrogating him regarding his last activities and involvement with a government worker who sold his top secret work to Rethrick. Michael can't remember a thing, and after escaping, he goes looking for his old friend.

Jimmy is oddly surprised that Michael is still alive and sends his henchman, Wolfe (COLM FEORE), to find out why and then take care of matters. As Michael tries to avoid him and the FBI, he and Rachel set out to figure out the meaning of the clues that he apparently left for himself regarding his work on a machine that let's anyone see into the future.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
While many adults fear that forgetfulness is an early sign of Alzheimer's or some other mentally debilitating condition, sometimes it has its advantages. That particularly true regarding past traumatic events as well as getting oneself out of chores and other responsibilities. It would also come in handy for spies, captured soldiers and even business people who sign confidentiality contracts with their employers.

The latter is the plot catalyst in "Paycheck," the latest adaptation of a work by Philip K. Dick, the late author whose other stories inspired the likes of "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report." As directed by John Woo ("Windtalkers," "Broken Arrow"), the man in love with guns, slow motion footage and mano a mano clashes, the film is a moderately engaging mixture of sci-fi and action theatrics.

That said, it's likely you'll need the same sort of memory wiping -- that occurs in the film -- once everything's over so that you can delete your questions about the plentiful plot holes, unbelievable moments and story similarities to other sci-fi films and even the classic "Memento."

Like that film as well as "Minority Report" and especially "Total Recall," the plot features a male protagonist caught in a world where the rules have suddenly changed. He then tries to figure out who or what changed them by examining various clues he's left for himself.

It's a decent, sci-fi detective premise, and I'm curious how Dick's original 1953 short story reads and whether it suffers from similar plot and character problems. If I had to guess, I'd say the fault lies with screenwriter Dean Georgaris's (making his feature debut) adaptation of the work and his need to stretch out the material to fill the picture's roughly two-hour runtime.

Rather than having additional fun with the potential-filled premise and playing with the overall issue of memory loss and not knowing who to trust, he and Woo insert various action sequences. While they're competently staged and executed, they somewhat feel like "Woo light" where the once edgy and stylish filmmaker has seemingly forgotten how to excite and/or impress us with such material.

It doesn't help that the XY half of "Bennifer" plays the lead. While Ben Affleck ("Gigli," "Daredevil") has the movie star look and physique, he's not always believable in some of the roles he plays, and this is one of them. The dumb, goofy and/or unbelievable things his character is forced to do or say don't do him any favors. Yet, any number of other actors would have likely brought more depth, vulnerability and believability to the part.

Most of the supporting cast is wasted in their various roles. That includes Aaron Eckhart ("The Missing," "The Core") as the former friend turned villain and Colm Feore ("Chicago," "National Security") as his right-hand man. Uma Thurman ("Kill Bill," "Pulp Fiction") seems bored and/or distracted playing the part of a now forgotten lover but current accomplice, while Paul Giamatti ("American Splendor," "Private Parts") doesn't fare any better as the supposed comic relief.

Joe Morton ("Dragonfly," 'Terminator 2") and Michael C. Hall ("Chicago," TV's "Six Feet Under") appear as two FBI agents on the protagonist's trail, but their material and the overall storyline of a top secret machine that can see into the future is far too weak.

That is, when it's not ridiculous. While it's not time travel per se, the related changing of the future events by manipulating a character's present results in the same sort of time travel conundrum. Simply put, the involved logic (or lack thereof) is flawed and that becomes distracting.

The worst part is that it's not needed. The erased memory storyline is enough to carry the film (regardless of how Dick's story plays out), but the clues that guide the protagonist angle - based on future events - isn't as clever as it sounds and not as much fun as similar material and moments in "Minority Report."

Had that, Affleck and Woo's now tiresome directorial style been jettisoned, we might have had a decent little sci-fi detective flick. Of course, that would have change the big budget, star vehicle into a different sort of beast.

Not laughably bad (and unfortunately not campy enough) but clearly not living up to its premise and potential, this is one "Paycheck" you likely won't mind forgetting to cash. The film rates as a 3.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 22, 2003 / Posted December 25, 2003


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