on December 25, 2003 by Christine James
"Minority Report" by way of "MacGyver," "Paycheck" stars Ben Affleck as Michael Jennings, a freelance reverse engineer who rips off existing cutting-edge technology and improves on it for the competition. However, in the not-too-distant future in which this thriller is set, discretion is ensured not by honor or contracts but by memory wipe, a potentially dangerous process that targets and zaps company-secret-related synapses. Michael takes the risk in exchange for rich compensation. Morally ambiguous, he even agrees to a top-secret three-year project and proportionate memory eradication because the price is right. But when he falls in love with redemption-inducingly beautiful biologist Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman) shortly before his assignment begins, he realizes that some things are more important than money. He's still committed to the job he signed on for, but his newfound values come in handy when he learns that his boss, Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), wants to create a device that can see into the future and use it to RULE THE WORLD. The corporate world, at any rate. But the repercussions are far more devastating than the hijacking of market share: The Einstein-inspired, Windows-compatible crystal ball augurs wars and mass destruction that are doomed to become self-fulfilling prophecies once the populace glimpses the shock and awe in store for them.

Michael foresees all this, as well as his own death at the hands of his employer, while working on the quantum apparatus. He knows that he will be powerless to stop Rethrick after the memory wipe, and because he is under Crown Jewel-caliber surveillance he can't just send his post-amnesiac self a note explaining what happened and what needs to be done. Instead, he compiles an envelope of seemingly random objects innocuous enough not to raise any red flags, but which are actually clues that will help him change his fate--and humankind's.

It's fun to watch a baffled Michael unravel his own mystery with the skill, grace and synchronicity foreknowledge has allowed him to orchestrate, but the scheme feels underplayed and not as spectacular as it should be. There's no grand sense of destiny--just the comparatively petty machinations of man, however clever some of them may be. Affleck doesn't particularly convince as a genius rogue inventor, nor does he convey the level of charisma that would incite more of a rooting interest, but he acquits himself decently and restores some of his credibility following the "Gigli" debacle. Thurman does her "Kill Bill" character proud, even without the benefit of The Bride's D.I.V.A.S. assassin training; she is shaping up to be the new millennium's next action heroine, a role not even Rethrick's computer-generated divinations could have predicted for the sultry, smart seductress a few years ago. Director John Woo, progenitor of film violence as stylized artistry, rests on his laurels here. He keeps the action sufficiently engaging, but never mind-blowing. Unfulfilled potential is this "Paycheck's" FICA, but as a counterprogrammer during the drama-heavy Christmas season, it should cash in. Starring Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart and Paul Giamatti. Directed by John Woo. Written by Dean Georgaris. Produced by John Davis, Michael Hackett, John Woo and Terence Chang. A Paramount release. Thriller. Rated PG-13 for intense action violence and brief language. Running time: 119 min

Tags: Starring Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart and Paul Giamatti. Directed by John Woo. Written by Dean Georgaris. Produced by John Davis, Michael Hackett, John Woo, Terence Chang, Paramount, Thriller

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