After last year's botched bout with dour World War II drama in "Windtalkers," former Hong Kong action maestro John Woo is back to the far-fetched fun that is his trademark in "Paycheck," another too-Hollywood adaptation of a Philip K. Dick science fiction thriller.
Set in a stylish, chrome-and-glass near future where Ben Affleck is an in-demand high-tech engineering genius (yeah, right) who works as a hired gun on short-term top-secret projects, the plot turns on the fact that after each job he has his memory erased back to his hire date under the guise of what you might call extreme non-disclosure agreements.
Persuaded by a rich old friend (Aaron Eckhart) who runs a huge biotech conglomerate to take on a mysterious and illicit three-year job with a mega-bucks final payoff, when Ben wakes up after this latest gig, he discovers he's divested himself of a $93 million profit and left in its stead an envelope containing 13 cryptic items (strange sunglasses, hairspray, a paper clip, a fortune cookie fortune, a watch, etc.) that begin coming in suspiciously handy as he is hunted by assassins and the FBI.
In shock -- especially when he learns the assassins were hired by Eckhart -- and running for his life, he begins desperately trying to piece together what he'd gotten himself into during those three years he can't remember.
Before you start asking questions about how he got so good at what he does if his memory gets wiped after each job or why his employers wouldn't want his knowledge intact for developing future product upgrades, I should forewarn you that "Paycheck" is incapable of standing up to much logical scrutiny. The Swiss could take lessons from screenwriter Dean Georgaris on how to mold something so cheesy and full of holes -- especially once Ben gets an inkling of what's really going on (which I won't reveal here, except to say that it involves predicting the future).
But as Ben resolves to break back into his lab and destroy his last project for the sake of the whole world, the picture begins to get by on its tightly wound suspense and Woo's distinctively, gratifyingly slick cinematic tactics. He creates wild flashes of latent memory that lead Ben to a lover he'd forgotten as well -- Uma Thurman playing a flirtatious biologist who'd also worked for Eckhart. He complements the tension with an exciting, implausible motorcycle chase, and manages to bring it to a zenith two separate times with his trademark John Woo Standoff (two adversary circling at arms' length with guns aimed right in each other's foreheads) before building to a fate-twisting climax.
As for Affleck, while he hasn't lost the slack-jawed stare that makes it hard to take him seriously sometimes, playing a character at a loss to understand what's going on around him agrees with his acting style. Despite being ill-suited to play a genius, he makes a much better action hero here than a red-leathered superhero in this year's comic book faux pas "Daredevil." Plus, he looks mighty snappy all spruced up in the film's '50s-inspired future-retro costumes and pomade-slicked, hard-parted hair.
If only a draft of the script had been put through the wringer of second-guessing a time or two to squeeze out some of its preposterous plot fallacies, this could have been a really groovy B-movie. But because it tries to get away with a lot of contrived coincidence by pointing to its future-predicting (something the vaguely similar Dick flick "Minority Report" did far better) and because it ignores big loopholes like a dubious have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too finale, "Paycheck" is more of a C-grade popcorn muncher that's entertaining only if you're willing to forgive a lot.
Woo's talent as the champ of check-your-brain cinema makes that easier than it is in most hole-riddled movies. But he can't make the holes go away.