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If Alfred Hitchcock had done a science fiction film, it might have looked something like Paycheck. Taking one of Hitch's favorite themes, that of a man wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, director John Woo's latest throws in a spin (literally) from Philip K. Dick.

Ben Affleck's Michael Jennings isn't so much innocent as ignorant; if he did do what the government fears he did, he has no way of knowing. In lieu of confidentiality agreements, Jennings gets his memories wiped by the corporations he works for. As for what he reverse-engineered for his "friend" Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), it hardly matters, nor for that matter is it actually particularly believable. Just a macguffin, another favorite Hitchcock device, that only exists to drive the characters along the plotline.

The resulting film isn't fantastic, nor does it really aim to be. It's a lightly stylish thriller that has the makings of an intriguing videogame, and for once, that's not an annoying trait to have. Whatever Jennings did, he was canny enough to send himself clues in the form of innocuous personal effects. Twenty items in a manila envelope, and the audience may be barely ahead of Jennings as he figures out what to do with them. By adding an element of a game into the film, it makes it just a little bit cooler than it had a right to be.

In between dodging bullets from the F.B.I. and the villainous Wolf (Colm Feore), Jennings tries to piece together the past three years of his life. Complicating matters is a scientist with whom he clearly built a relationship, Rachel (Uma Thurman). What her specialty is also doesn't matter much; she may be working on controlling the weather but nobody seems to care about that.

Yes, Paycheck is sloppy in its logic the way Woo's films tend to be. But after the dreary Mission: Impossible 2 and Windtalkers, Woo has found his way back to making up for lack of sense with a relentless pace. Toning down his trademarks, Woo takes Dean Georgaris' script and pumps it full of action. Though he still uses a lot of stand-offs to provide slight breathers, he never lingers on them, and the few bits of slow motion here are a lot less pretentious than they have been in past films.

The film also casts Affleck better than he has been used in at least a year. One thing the guy never seems to be able to shed himself of is a slight cocky unlikability, a trait shared by his character. From the outset, we see that Jennings does questionable things as a hot-shot engineer. While he may not be committing illegal acts, he certainly skirts the edge of morality in his work. Even Jennings has to question what terrible thing he could have done to warrant a clear change of conscience before his mind-wipe. Affleck plays that growing confusion well, letting the audience in and ultimately making them root for him.

Opposite him, Thurman struggles to make Rachel more than just a weepy love interest. For the most part she succeeds, though granted, she's dealing with a sense of betrayal from a man who really doesn't remember doing it.

Once again, Eckhart proves himself as adept at playing slime as he is good-heartedness. And Paul Giamatti has a few amusing moments as Jenning's memory expert, Shorty. It's clearly the kind of role Giamatti can do in his sleep, taking it for the paycheck (kaff kaff), but if it allows him room to do more films like American Splendor, then more power to him.

Paycheck delivers a decent time at the movies. And if we're lucky, it might distract us for a while as a PC game.


Derek McCaw

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