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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Paycheck

Starring: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman
Director: John Woo
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: December 2003
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action

*Also starring: Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, Emily Holmes, John Cassini, Michael C. Hall, Fulvio Cecere, Peter Friedman, Michelle Harrison, Craig March, Chelah Horsdal

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Harvey Karten review follows movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
2.  Dustin Putman read the review movie reviewmovie review
3.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
4.  Susan Granger read the review movie reviewmovie review

Review by Harvey Karten
2½ stars out of 4

Guy goes to his internist in a panic. "Doctor, doctor, you've got to help me. I have a serious problem. I can't remember anything!" "When did you first notice this problem?" asks the physician. "What problem?" replies the patient.

Losing your memory is no picnic, and if after indulging in a three-year romance with Uma Thurman you cannot remember her at all, you must be a basket case. That's more or less the situation with William Jennings (Ben Affleck), a brilliant reverse engineer (i.e. someone who can take apart some new technology and put it together in a different and more progressive way). Noting how skilled the man is after he had looked at a three-dimensional television viewing of a beautiful woman, managing to free the woman from the computer to dance on his desk, he's hired by Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) who, working with his subordinate Wolfe (Colm Feore), gets him to work on an ambitious, machine-building project. He must first be injected with a substance to erase his memory so that he cannot sell his secrets to competitors. The paycheck is to be 92 million bucks. Three years later, Jennings, who has his own private agent Shorty (Paul Giamatti), is awakened and told, incredibly, that three years have passed, years that have now been erased from his life.

Since "Paycheck" is a film directed by John Woo, who has entertained action-adventure lovers with the likes of "Face/Off" (federal agent agrees to have a heinous criminal's face grafted on his own), and "Mission Impossible 2" (action takes off when a ruthless renegade spy captures a virus and its antidote and murders its creator), we know we're in for something imaginative with the emphasis more on action than on rational and thoroughly explicable plot lines. That's what we get in Dean Georgaris's adaptation of a story by the phenomenal sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick whose output includes thirty novels in addition to a slew of short stories such as this one.

Philip K. Dick's writings transcend genre to examine the nature of reality and what it means to be human. With complexity and subtle humor, his stories are considered by some critics to be the equal of the surreal tomes of Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut. To see parallels with "Paycheck," take a look at Dick's "Adjustment Team," which explores the fate of a man who by mistake has stepped out of his own time. Or look into "Autofac," in which a community battles machines to take back control of their lives. The writer's imagination is captured by Woo, but a thoughtful movie-goer might wish for more examination into the ethical dilemma posed by "Paycheck" which has pretty much been displaced by dynamics of more interest to a mainstream audience. The chase, which involves a ride against the flow of traffic through Vancouver's streets (substituting for Seattle) by Jennings with his girlfriend Rachel (Uma Thurman) in tow is breathtaking. Less so are the redundant scenes of bullets and people crashing through windows to such an extent that had the title "Shattered Glass" not already been spoken for this year (involving a thoughtful examination of a journalist who faked stories for the New Republic magazine), the name "Paycheck" could have been scrapped in its favor.

But "Shattered Glass" and "Paycheck" are not in the same league. "Paycheck" is an expensive production loaded with activities centering on the race for his life that Jennings takes with Rachel, though he has no idea why his friend and employer, Rethrick (nicely played by Aaron Eckhart, who has been cast in far better roles by Neil LaBute e.g. "In the Company of Men"), is out to gun him down even though Jennings had inexplicably agreed to forego the 92 million cash after going through a crisis of conscience.

The ethical question posed by Philip K. Dick which is virtually lost amid the races, crashes and gunplay, is: Can a nation (or a private corporation) morally justify the building and usage of a machine that can predict the future that can tell individuals what's in store for them years later (thereby crushing hope and striving in so many cases), or tell our nation whether an enemy is planning to go to war against us (and thereby trigger the very conflict we're trying to prevent by attacking pre-emptively)? To me the answer is, sure, why not? Wouldn't the U.S. like to avoid another Pearl Harbor by crushing powers bent on our destruction before the latter get a chance to strike? Why not allow individuals to look into their future or not, giving them the freedom to make their own choices? Unfortunately the vision of the writer is clouded by the noise and violence, leaving a picture which, like the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is dazzling to look while at the same time is spiritually empty.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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