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(2003) ** 1/2 Pg-13
110 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: John Woo. Cast: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Michael C. Hall, Kathryn Morris.

In the late '80s and early '90s, everyone wanted to be John Woo, the bad boy director from Hong Kong who expended an army-sized requisition of ammo in every operatic action scene. Increasingly, Woo has betrayed how much he would really rather be someone else. His Mission: Impossible 2 (in the vein of his earlier Once a Thief) rebranded Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. Woo's underrated Windtalkers felt like Woo's answer to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. With Paycheck, Woo again superficially recalls Hitchcock (by way of split-screen fanatic Brian DePalma, who made Mission: Impossible) and, more substantively, Spielberg; in particular, Woo mirrors the former's North By Northwest and the latter's year-old Minority Report (which, like Paycheck, derives from a Philip K. Dick story). Perhaps needless to say, the playful but inconsequential Paycheck doesn't live up to its forerunners.

It is a rare film which is above its lead and beneath its supporting players, but Paycheck fits the bill, with Ben Affleck top-billed and Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, and Paul Giamatti ill at ease in flat roles they've long since outgrown. Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a reverse-engineer pulling down major paydays in our near future. The hitch: Jennings must submit to a "memory wipe" of the period he's spent toiling on each project, supposedly ensuring corporations that their inventor-for-hire won't spread the wealth or spill, in an untimely fashion, the beans of his newly minted technology.

Naturally, the lost-memory trick lends some novelty to the conventional run-and-gun thriller. Jennings begins his ultimate job--a long-term project with the promise of an eight-figure paycheck--by gaping into the ol' glowing briefcase (the dangerous MacGuffin introduced by Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly and appropriated by Woo disciple Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction). Then, bingo--Jennings is awake and awarded his pay. Unfortunately, in short order, his life is also turned upside down, as Jennings finds himself linked to a murder and goes on the run to recover the millions he unaccountably forfeit for a manila envelope, left by himself for himself, of seemingly useless items.

Those items, as long as they last, goose the film into reverse-engineered James Bond territory, by way of TV's McGyver. We know Jennings will use the sunglasses, the paper clip, the hairspray, et al, as if he was playing "Q" to his own inattentive Bond, but how? The ways he employs his bag of tricks suggest a kind of video-game plotting, as Jennings passes each level toward the big finish.

Along the way, Woo elicts a tremendous rooting interest from the capitalist audience: this sap's getting cheated out of his hard-earned pay! Giamatti plays Jennings's sad-sack cohort (good for a dry aside or two), Eckhart's the evil CEO, and Thurman trips lightly through the role of the girlfriend Eckhart wiped from Affleck's head. For quite some time, Affleck has seemed lightheaded on screen; Paycheck does nothing to (im)prove his presence. Instead, Woo treats him as a mannequin in his Hitchcock pictorial; he and Eckhart sport the slick, close-cropped coifs of '50s leading men, giving the film a retro out-of-time feel.

Woo's audaciousness wears into unwelcome parody and repetition here, with at least two strong-armed/straight-armed handgun face/offs and an obligatory slo-mo dove. Woo seems eternally oblivious to cheesy dialogue, but his action can still rock, in kinetic spurts. He stages an effective strobe-driven sequence, dizzying tracking shots in a transit station escape capped with a dash between two buses, and a motorcycle chase which repeats the feat on wheels. Like Hitchcock, Woo has a sense of humor, peppering the film with Dick-friendly self-reference (among the music cues: "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and "I Remember You"). Woo draws attention to images of extra-sensory cognition (a crystal ball, a palm reading map, the yin-yang symbol) and notions like "If you show someone the future, they have no future," but the interpretation of Dick's intriguing concept is a street which mostly just dead-ends into noisy silliness.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 5/19/2009

Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment

In its Blu-ray debut, Paycheck looks mighty fine. The hi-def transfer makes the six-year-old film look freshly minted, with a clean look and excellent detail and color rendering. There's also an aural upgrade to hi-def with a fantastic Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that thumps and explodes with Woo's signature action.

Paramount also sees fit to preserve the DVD bonus features, beginning with commentary by director John Woo and a second commentary, by screenwriter Dean Georgaris. Both are worth a listen: Woo covers the usual behind-the-scenes ground, but also offers insights into his own working process and its evolution, while Georgaris' track gets into some of the intriguing nitty-gritty of choices made in directing the course of the screenplay adaptation.

The featurette "Paycheck: Designing the Future" (18:15, SD) interviews include Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Woo, Uma Thurman, producer Terence Chang, production designer William Sandell, visual effects supervisor Gregory L. McMurry, and Colm Feore, while also providing glimpses of the work on set.

"Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck"
(16:48, SD) obviously puts the focus on the film's action, and includes interviews with U.S. stunt coordinator Greg Smrz, Woo, Affleck, Giamatti, and Thurman.

Lastly, we get seven "Extended/Deleted Scenes" (12:27, SD) for a fuller picture of Woo's process. In a nice-priced edition, this is a good choice for action fans to expand their Blu library.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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