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01/02/2004. Contributed by Frank Ochieng

Buy Paycheck in the USA - or Buy Paycheck in the UK

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Sadly, our Frank discovers this film is one Paycheck not worth necessarily cashing or depositing as Woo waters down his boisterously banal and generic thriller all too convincingly.

Paycheck (2003) Paramount Pictures. 1 hour 59 minutes. Starring: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall. Directed by John Woo.

Ardent fans of action-packed filmmaker John Woo will be lost for words when checking out his latest sci-fi thriller Paycheck.

And that's a shame because Woo, the master of visceral movie mayhem, is the ideal artist to pull off the concept of bringing author Philip K. Dick's early 1950s short story about memory-for-profit and making it an outrageous event to remember. Sadly, this is one Paycheck not worth necessarily cashing or depositing because Woo waters down this boisterously banal and generic thriller all too convincingly.

Woo had everything going for him that would ensure the stimulating success of his science fiction actioner. The casting of Bennifer media boy wonder Ben Affleck certainly couldn't hurt the box office interests.

Plus, the injection of Woo's kinetic style of filmmaking is a cause for curiosity in checking out the big screen goods. And let's not forget the impeccable reputation of Dick's colorful and imaginative literary stories that beg for a sharply whimsical cinematic adaptation. So what then went wrong with Woo's techno-tale of a cyberspace wizard selling his memory capacity to the highest bidder?

Let's see and could it be the casting of wooden Gigli guru Affleck who stiffly goes through the motions of ducking and dodging the contrived action-oriented obstacles that his giddy director tosses in front of him in an effort to generate excitement?

Maybe it's the lethargic acting or spotty writing from Dean Georgaris (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) that contributes to the uneven energy that lags thanks to an overwrought trivial script?

Perhaps it's the blatant knockoff of Woo's protrusive project to try and drain some of the similar themes that were previously demonstrated in contemporary sci-fi fare such as 1991's Total Recall? Heck, Woo even includes traces of a Hitchcockian subtext to elevate the transparent suspenseful elements. Possibly we could point our attention to the dippy dialogue or the rudimentary-placed gunplay and explosions and the exaggerated chase scenes that seem to go on endlessly?

More importantly, Dick's intellectual vision for the material is compromised by Woo's insistence on providing popcorn-induced platitudes to make this story jump through hoops for mainstream consumption. Hence, Paycheck becomes flagrantly silly-minded and stilted by the outlandish moment.

Futuristic computer engineer Michael Jennings (Affleck) is up for hire depending on what service he can offer to those who are interested. Classified as a genius mind, Michael is able to concoct top secret projects for companies looking to capitalize on his creativity.

The only stipulation is that Michael needs to have his memory erased of whatever hush-hush endeavor he conjured up for his sources. After all, he must abide by the company's secrecy agreement. Things begin to pick up financially when Michael wheels and deals with various outfits looking to buy segments of his memory as long as they are willing to pay him the smooth cash for the privilege to do so.

It isn't long before the opportunistic Michael is approached by an old collegiate pal Jim Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart, The Core) about using his memory in a daring three-year project that is his ambitious undertaking to date. Jim is a tycoon loaded with the megabucks so money is no object as far as meeting Michael's memory-trading hefty price tag. Michael's trusty sidekick Shorty (Paul Giamatti) is rather skeptical about this particular experimentation.

Nevertheless, Michael decides to go ahead with Jim's risky project. Sure enough, the process is quick and calming. Michael awakes three years into the future to claim his lucrative payday that was promised before he assumed taking on the project. Unfortunately, there was no payoff but instead the personal items he had left in an envelope in anticipation that these things would jog his memory. Well, no such luck. The only real revelation that Michael encounters is the harsh reality that determined forces want to see him captured and eventually eliminated - permanently!

How appropriate that Woo's awkward sci-fi nutty narrative is about memory loss seeing as though this convoluted clunker is utterly forgettable. Paycheck isn't even that visually pleasing from the viewpoint that one would expect an entrancing representation of the future that echoed the same glittery and gothic landscapes that were found in previous Dick-related on-screen utopias such as Minority Report or the inferior Imposter for that matter.

The collaboration of Woo's staid direction and Georgaris's flaccid screenplay doesn't invite anything that spectacular to the proceedings. Woo still does maintain some of his flash when blowing objects to kingdom come and his action sequences show some innovative motion-like ingenuity when the occasion calls for it. Still, this is not enough to overcome how superficially lightweight Woo's frenetic flick is in its flat execution.

Woo's leading man Affleck doesn't fit the bill and is probably one of the major reasons why this film seems so shaky from a dramatic perspective. If Affleck is not mugging for the camera at the most inopportune time then he's going through this jittery tale with all the flexibility of a broomstick. Affleck's heroics are uneventful and unintentionally absurd.

Pairing him up with the likes of the usually dependent Uma Thurman (Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2) portraying a kissy-kissy biologist is ill-advised and their love interest for one another comes off as routinely artificial. The supporting players breeze through with nothing much to give artistically besides assuming the skin of standard arbitrary roles, especially Joe Morton as a cantankerous FBI operative or Colm Feore doing his sketchy Bad Guy 101 bit.

As for story development, Paycheck takes its liberties to be implausible and incoherent as far as some major plot devices are concerned. Sure, there can be leeway for acknowledging some suspension of belief but Woo demands the audience to swallow his frantic foolishness a bit too much. As to whatever gaffs that are evident or sense of bewilderment that may pop up in your noggin, Woo drowns out the frivolous flaws by inundating his high-voltage vehicle with nonsensical fistfights and other combative kookiness to spice up the futile festivities.

Hopefully Woo can use this meager Paycheck and buy back his credibility as a masterful Hong Kong moviemaker who knows how to helm solidly vibrant actioners that roar and soar with fierce conviction.

Frank Ochieng

(c) Frank Ochieng 2004

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