Take this movie and shove it: Oops, that's Johnny Paycheck, not Ben Affleck, seen fleeing the set of this movie. (courtesy photo)

Affleck's memory has been erased, and maybe John Woo's has been, too

These are dark days for John Woo apologists. We were able to defend our appreciation for Face/Off and even the Van Damme cheese-fest Hard Target by pointing to their self-conscious humor. We were pleased when Woo was able to wedge his bizarre sentimentalism into the Secret Agent Man thrills of Mission: Impossible 2 and make Tom Cruise a pawn in his game. But then came Windtalkers, where cartoonish shootouts were replaced by history and Nic Cage was asked to leave his irony at the door. Of the many wonderful things Woo is, cinematic chameleon is not one of them; his shift into wartime social relevance was a serious misstep. Sadly, what promised to be a return to his strengths in Paycheck is nothing of the sort.

Woo is at home in plots with more holes than a taxi-dancer's fishnets, but Paycheck just won't hold up no matter how much leeway you give it. Inspired by a Philip K. Dick yarn, it toys with the themes that fueled Steven Spielberg's Minority Report: A tool is invented to look into the future, and characters find their lives threatened by both the philosophical and the logistical implications of that device.

The story is complicated by the oracle machine's inventor, whose memory has been erased by the company that hired him to build it. Already, we're traversing a bridge built on a suspension of disbelief that would make Face/Off fans shudder: a) Ben Affleck's annoyingly glib scientist, Michael Jennings, is able to leapfrog entire corporate labs all by himself, outdoing somebody else's high-tech invention in two months with no outside contact; b) a little headset with strobe lights can scan through his memories like a fast-forwarding tape and erase the sensitive parts; c) the companies who pay so highly to have these secrets erased allow Jenning's business partner to do the erasing.

Dir. John Woo; writ. Philip K. Dick, Dean Georgaris; feat. Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti (PG-13)
But those are minor quibbles compared to the way Paycheck defies its own logic as the story progresses. Dissecting it all would spoil the film, but the discrepancies are plentiful: The most obvious problem is that Jenning's predictive abilities conveniently go blind whenever doing so would allow for a motorcycle chase. If the inconsistencies were in little side-alleys of logic, and not opposed to the very essence of the plot, you might overlook them.

You might also overlook them if Woo was delivering the kind of signature action set-pieces we've come to expect. But he's not. Yes, there's the motorcycle chase, and two brief Mexican standoffs to boot, but the action never has the thrill or the beauty it has had in his earlier films. Without balletic ballistics and Wagnerian explosions to distract us, we have to watch the cast - and that's not good, even with actors who have been anywhere from decent to quite strong in many recent performances. The cornball melodrama that the director typically weaves between gunshots requires larger-than-life screen personalities - Chow Yun Fat, John Travolta, the mighty Van Damme - to take it to that special Land of Woo, and Affleck just isn't there. Strangely, Woo seems to have wandered away from that bewitching land himself for a while. •

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