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Director John Woo's career in America has seldom reached the heights of his career in Hong Kong. He found his greatest stateside success with Mission: Impossible 2 (which contains a series of amazing set-piece action sequences), and some fans enjoyed his Face/Off (although it delved into operatic overstatement to the nth degree), but to date nothing has yet carried the punch of his best Hong Kong output, such as The Killer or Hard-Boiled.

Woo's latest American effort, Paycheck, is more like Face/Off than M:I-2. Both Face/Off and Paycheck have strong science-fiction elements that ask viewers to suspend major doses of misbelief. Paycheck starts off by providing memory zapping technology (and in the movie's latter scenes, time machine technology). Accepting this technology isn't necessarily easy, but it's the first hurdle in liking this movie. If you can get past the improbabilities of identifying the locations of specific memories in the brain and then frying them with a tiny laser, you're on your way to appreciating Paycheck. Never mind the absurdity of suggesting that such technology may already exist and is being used by major corporations. The conceit might be outrageous, but the movie immediately gains points for its chutzpah and its verve. Unfortunately, though, this conceit also pushes the movie toward camp, and Woo has little instinct for camp. He only knows how to play movies straight. His movies might soar toward operatic heights, but he always plays them serious, which is what made M:I-2 work in spite of its fanciful plot developments. In Paycheck, though, the plot developments are at the service of an increasingly absurd scenario.

Philip K. Dick's short story "Paycheck," upon which this movie is based, works like an allegory, but movies are much more literal than books. In movies, nothing exists in the audience's imagination. The movie does all the work, filling in all the details by simply allowing you to see what is happening -- and in the process, making allegory hard to pull off. Woo is too forceful a director to really care about something as fragile as allegory. So retailored to meet the demands of the crime thriller format, Paycheck becomes utterly ludicrous.

Ben Affleck takes the lead role. Maybe he should have learned after the fiasco of Daredevil to stay clear of the action genre and stick to dramas and comedies. He did after all win an Academy Award for co-authoring the first-rate drama Good Will Hunting. But if Tom Cruise can be an action hero, why not Ben Affleck? Affleck stars as a reverse engineer named Michael Jennings. He's a computer/electronics whiz who gets hired to break the secrets behind new products and design new products along similar lines. To protect the companies involved, Jennings must agree to have his memory of each project erased after he wraps up work. This gives Jennings an unusual outlook on life. All he remembers of his life are the days in between projects -- the greatest hits of his life, the vacations and the parties.

Jennings is offered an eight-figure paycheck for a three-year project. Of course, this means losing a good chunk of his life, but then he can retire. So he accepts the offer. One of the little perks will be working alongside a beautiful scientist played by Uma Thurman (who gets very little of consequence to do in Paycheck). Next thing he knows, however -- thanks to the memory zapping technology -- the project is over. When he tries to pick up his paycheck, he learns that at sometime during the past three years he signed away his rights to any compensation for the project. Instead of an impressive paycheck, all he gets is an envelope of personal belongings -- but the items, to his dismay, aren't even his. Soon afterwards, he discovers people want him dead, so he's immediately on the run. In the process, he discovers the ordinary, everyday objects in the envelope occasionally come in handy, typically in highly unusual ways that save his life or draw him closer to the truth about his situation. Therein resides the real impetus behind the scenario -- the revelations about how each item in the envelope can be used. However, for this plot to work, Jennings must hang on to this envelope that he is initially convinced is worthless. So Woo shows us Jennings desperately grasping the envelope as if his life depends upon it -- which it does, but Jennings doesn't know this, creating a major credibility issue that Woo never figures out to address.

This gimmicky scenario is definitely minor compared to the weightier goings-on in Philip K. Dick's own Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was filmed as Blade Runner. It's also a much lighter concept than Minority Report, also penned by Dick. In Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott emphasized the futuristic environment, creating a truly amazing world for his characters to inhabit. And likewise in Minority Report, director Steven Spielberg spent considerable attention on creating a dark and steely vision of the future. However, in Paycheck, Woo is less concerned with creating a convincing alternative vision of the future than he is with showing us Affleck running from one location to the next, dodging a hail of gunfire. Reduced to a series of action sequences by Woo's overriding commitment to chase sequences and gun play, Paycheck becomes a bloated excuse for providing pyrotechnic displays and smashing several dozen glass windows. Sure, some of Woo's hallmark touches are here, as in the sequence where two men pull guns at the same time and hold the guns in each other's face. You'll find the same scene in virtually every Woo film. However, here it's arrived at in such a mechanical and contrived fashion that the movie veers toward parody.

This is easily Woo's worst American movie. At one point, near the movie's end, when the hero and heroine are trapped by legions of henchmen, I became convinced the only way the movie could get any worse was if someone pulled the cover off an air duct and crawled inside. But surely that wouldn't happen, right? Well ... you guessed it. It's amazing how air ducts are always the size of wind tunnels in movies like Paycheck.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Paramount Pictures
Movie Web site: Paycheck



Photo credits: © Paramount Pictures Corporation and Dreamworks Productions LLC. All rights reserved.