- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Ben Affleck began 2003 as the high-flying “Daredevil” only to plummet like the proverbial stone in “Gigli.” Now, he’s front and center in “Paycheck,” director John Woo’s latest paean to pyrotechnics.

At least Mr. Affleck’s beloved J. Lo is nowhere in sight in this muddled sci-fi caper, adapted from a tale by Philip K. Dick, whose work inspired 1982’s “Blade Runner” and 2002’s “Minority Report.”

Mr. Affleck stars as Michael Jennings, a brilliant scientist who doesn’t mind helping seedy companies if the price is right. Besides, modern technology allows his bosses to zap Michael’s memory once the check clears. Michael walks away with a fat payday and no knowledge of what harm he might have caused.

One day his friend Jimmy (Aaron Eckhart, drifting ever further from his indie beginnings) connects Michael with the biggest paycheck of all. But to earn it, he has to work not just for a few weeks but for three years, and have his memory erased thereafter.

He gulps and takes the job.

Three years later, he tries drawing his salary but is told he forfeited his bounty days earlier. All he’s given is an envelope filled with random, everyday objects and a curt goodbye.

Now, his ex-bosses and the police are on his trail — for reasons he can’t remember — and those innocuous objects are helping him escape one jam after another. The items, and the love of a woman he met and fell in love with during those three years (Uma Thurman) are all that stand in the way of him being erased himself.

“Paycheck” teeters on so many fragile assumptions it would take a Spielberg to keep it all in balance. Mr. Woo is no Spielberg. In fact, in the unofficial ranking of overrated auteurs, Mr. Woo lands just below “Clerks’” Kevin Smith.

His predilections for dove imagery and double gun stare downs have gone past cliche into the realm of the unintentionally hilarious, and his American films seem thoroughly disinterested in any scene devoid of fireworks.

To the director’s credit, “Paycheck” serves up a thrilling motorcycle set piece mid-film with shifting vantage points to amplify the action.

As the wronged Everyman, Mr. Affleck is all imposing shoulders and action hero looks without any of the complexity that, say, Harrison Ford brought to “Blade Runner.”

Watching Mr. Affleck attempt to seduce Miss Thurman early on could serve as a primer for would-be actors. Miss Thurman’s lovely face changes from precious to vexed to intrigued during the exchange. Mr. Affleck’s face registers smug … and then nothing. The film’s big mystery is how a leading man can share screen time with Miss Thurman and not show a pulse.

For a few easy inside laughs, “Paycheck” depicts Michael as a die-hard fan of the Boston Red Sox, the same team Mr. Affleck roots for. The detail doesn’t help audiences trying to disassociate Mr. Affleck’s very public private life from his character. A smarter, more cohesive “Paycheck” could have gone a long way toward removing the Bennifer tag from Mr. Affleck’s name.

**

WHAT: “Paycheck”

RATING: PG:13 (Violent action sequences, sexual situations and coarse language)

CREDITS: Directed by John Woo. Written by Dean Georgaris from a short story by Philip K. Dick. Produced by Mr. Woo and Terence Chang.

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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