Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Kathryn Morris, Ivana Milicevic, Michael C. Hall, Peter Friedman
Written by: Dean Georgaris, based on a story by Philip K. Dick
Directed by: John Woo
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense action violence and brief language
Running Time: 119
Date: 12/25/2003

Paycheck (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Memory Lane

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on his Hong Kong films, John Woo ranks as one of the world's greatest living stylistic filmmakers. But his Hollywood track record so far leaves a little to be desired.

When he gets the chance to favor style over substance, as in Hard Target and Mission: Impossible II, the films succeed on a purely visceral level.

Otherwise, he comes across as a director for hire, working for studios that want a "John Woo type" as a director but not actually Woo himself. Broken Arrow and Windtalkers were the results of these collaborations.

Now comes Paycheck, which seems like yet another job for hire for the great filmmaker, but one with a strong enough story to sustain our interest for two hours.

With the critical and commercial success of Memento in 2001, studios have been scrambling to find "memory" stories (without actually considering that there might have been something else about Memento that made it a good film). Now, someone has had the sense to go to a Philip K. Dick story, whose yarns have inspired more than one excellent film (Blade Runner, Minority Report etc.).

In Paycheck, Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a kind of secret agent engineer who copies top secret designs and subsequently has his memory erased. After his latest job, he finds himself out $90 million and hunted by the authorities. His only clue is an envelope full of household items that he mailed to himself before his memory wipe.

At first, Woo and screenwriter Dean Georgaris pay us the favor of not letting us in on just what Michael did for three years. The time passes us by in a quick blip just as it does for Michael. We're just as much in the dark as he is.

Moreover, the seeming uselessness of Michael's objects -- a paperclip, a crossword puzzle, a book of matches -- provide a patchwork of fascinating clues. How will each object be used? What could they all mean?

Eventually, the filmmakers reveal that Michael was working on a very dangerous machine that he now must destroy. He sent himself the clues to navigate through the present and avoid the dangerous future.

The screenplay provides a friend for Michael, played by Paul Giamatti (American Splendor), but Woo fails to use the buddies for more than just a few scenes. This is a director fascinated by camaraderie in tense situations, and Giamatti's absence is clearly felt.

Instead, Woo gives Michael a tough girlfriend, Uma Thurman. She's direct from the set of Kill Bill and still in fighting shape. But, we're still subjected to the obligatory scene in which the hero shuts her out for her own protection.

As in Daredevil and Gigli, Affleck once again has been miscast. Because he has a square jaw, studios see him as a stoic hero-type. But he simply doesn't have the personality to handle those roles. The stoic hero needs to get by without dialogue, and Affleck is best as a jabbering goofball (Chasing Amy, Dogma).

Woo's action scenes this time around aren't bad but aren't particularly spectacular either, as if he didn't really bother to think about them. Still, he does get in a couple of his trademarks, the Mexican standoff and one quick shot of a dove.

Overall, Paycheck moves at a nice clip and provides some genuine moments of suspense. But when Woo phones in a job of work like he does here, it only results in a good film when it could have been a great one.

DVD Details: Upon seeing it a second time and enjoying it just as much, I still couldn't understand why Paycheck was so despised. Maybe it was still trendy to pick on Ben Affleck, but I suspect that John Woo's open-hearted honestly makes many viewers uncomfortable -- especially when applied to pure action films. His trademark doves elicit scoffs from cold-hearted viewers, but they always take my breath away. Though it may take some time for the world to catch up to him, Woo is one of the finest directors working today. He provides one of his trademark self-effacing commentary tracks, giving all the credit to other people. Screenwriter Dean Georgaris contributes a rather timid second commentary. Otherwise we have lots of good deleted scenes, including an eerie one in which Affleck's character is revealed to have a wife and child who died (shades of Jersey Girl). We also have the usual generic studio-produced featurettes with the talking head interviews. But otherwise, this is one cool disc.

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