Woo's 'Paycheck' doesn't pay off

Movie Reviews

December 25, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Paycheck is one of those movies in which all the ingenuity went into the original idea and none into its execution.

Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, one of sci-fi's most hallucinogenic geniuses, it details an old-fashioned double-cross set in a world where minds can be selectively erased. Ben Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a computer genius whose specialty is being hired by companies for top-secret (often illegal, even more often immoral) projects, then having his memory partially scrubbed clean so he remembers nothing about what he's just done. The only thing he's left with is a hefty paycheck.

Now, here's the first of the story's many problems: Genius is based on accumulated memory. Stop gathering intelligence, and soon your genius rating is going to plummet. If Jennings is going to have months of memory erased at a time, isn't he going to plateau at a certain point and never advance?

But don't worry; things get sillier. When an old pal (Aaron Eckhart) offers him a huge payday for a project that will take three years, with that time period erased when it's over, Jennings' greed trumps his good sense and he says OK.

Bad move. Next thing we or he knows, he's signed away his big paycheck and is being hunted down by the FBI and his erstwhile employer, for reasons not conducive to good health.

What happened during those three years? The answer seems to lie in a package Jennings mailed to himself that contains 20 seemingly mundane items, including a fortune-cookie message, a filled-out crossword puzzle, a paper clip, a quarter, a bus pass, a key and a matchbook.

Each item is meant to trigger some thought, memory or action, such that he'll be able to unravel the mystery of the three-year gap. They do what they're supposed to do, but only because the filmmakers so dictate; how Jennings pieces everything together, or knows what to do with what, is never explained.

Nor, for that matter, is much else. Director John Woo, who has himself seemed lost in recent years, strings together elaborate chases and moments of faux suspense with brief moments of exposition. Everything looks good, but nothing makes any sense. Just what, for instance, is Jennings' buddy after? And why did Jennings have to be so extraordinarily clever about what he sent himself? Certainly, a few more straightforward clues would have hurried the process along and saved lots of time and bloodshed.

The co-stars, including Uma Thurman as a woman who meant a lot to Jennings during those three years, do what they can. But Paycheck is neither clever enough nor daring enough to sustain the intricate house of cards it sets up for itself.

Paycheck

Starring Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhard, Uma Thurman

Directed by John Woo

Released by DreamWorks SKG

Rated PG-13 (intense action violence and brief language)

Time 110 minutes

Sun score **

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