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Trading history for the future



Hollywood owes a considerable debt to the fertile genius of the late Philip K. Dick, the prolific science fiction writer whose work has inspired a variety of highly imaginative and highly successful movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and now, Paycheck. Unlike many of his colleagues, Dick concentrated on subjects and situations transcending the usual material of his trade --- robots, space ships, the future, etc. --- choosing instead to deal with the intellectual, emotional, even ethical possibilities in those subjects. The movies based on his work follow the novels and stories in considering the linkage of memory with identity, and their interaction with the paradoxes of time in the post-Einsteinian universe.

            Based on a long short story of the same title, and apparently set in some unspecified near future, Paycheck explores some of the author's characteristic interests. Ben Affleck plays Michael Jennings, who works as a "reverse engineer," a technical whiz who figures out how some advanced bit of technology works, then reconfigures it as something new and different, working backwards from some completed machinery in a kind of inspired pirating. To keep his work entirely secret, his boss and friend, Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), erases Jennings' memory of exactly how he accomplished his tasks, so he must readjust himself to the minor inconvenience (considering his salary) of occasional brief gaps in his knowledge of the immediate past.

            When Rethrick asks him to take on a big, top secret project that will require him to work and forget for three whole years for an immense sum of money, Jennings agrees. When he emerges into the present, expecting a paycheck for some 90 million dollars, however, he discovers that at some point in that period, he signed a document exchanging the money for an envelope filled with miscellaneous, more or less worthless, objects. Jennings realizes that he must learn the meaning and purpose of the objects --- a bus pass, a magnifying glass, a couple of keys, a wristwatch, sunglasses, an uncompleted crossword puzzle, etc. --- in order to learn why he traded them for a fortune, a mystery that also leads him toward recapturing his memory.

            The objects explain themselves, so to speak, as the movie's plot occasions their use. In the timeless manner of the thriller, while he attempts to figure out the meaning of the items and the reasons for his swap, Jennings also finds himself the quarry of two separate groups of pursuers, which provides all the usual action sequences to be expected in a John Woo film. While a team of FBI agents attempts to find out just what he did for those missing three years, a competing group of assassins merely want to kill him.

            As Jennings, assisted by Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman), the young woman he fell in love with during the lost years (and of course forgot), eludes the two teams of hunters, he finds that each of the items in the envelope helps him to escape one or another danger. He also comes to learn that he consciously chose those odd objects, which he naturally forgot, precisely in order to deal with the situations he now encounters. Finally, he discovers that he had worked on some sort of super laser telescope that apparently allowed its user to see around the whole universe and thus to see the future. Instead of a reverse engineer, he became something like a seer.

            Just as the picture presents that tantalizing notion --- presumably justifiable at some level of physics --- it muddies the whole business with typically Wooesque reliance on chases, shootouts, and explosions. Jennings himself raises the question of what knowing the future may mean, whether epistemology can at some point equate with destiny, so that prior knowledge creates later behavior, but drops it after a few bemused mumbles.

            Whatever its debt to Philip K. Dick, Paycheck is undeniably a John Woo movie. The film brushes aside its feeble attempts at intellectual inquiry and settles for a climax in an extended gunfight in the high-tech headquarters of the bad guy, who is of course Jennings' "friend" Rethrick. The finale is complete with the usual hundreds of bullets, punctured machinery, shattered glass, and high dives off great heights.

            The ingenious and fascinating premise, alas, tends to fade into the background along with all the gun smoke and hissing steam. All the action also tends to overwhelm the personalities of the principals, such as they are, with the central character probably suffering the most. Affleck's square, handsome, absolutely expressionless face and his clotted diction --- the words seem to fight their way out of his clenched jaws --- hardly serve to reflect much credibility anyway, which may suit the director's needs perfectly. With an opportunity to make something intelligent and significant from the story, Woo settles for chases, shootouts, and Ben Affleck. The author deserved more.

Paycheck, starring Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall; based on a short story by Philip K. Dick; screenplay by Dean Georgaris; directed by John Woo. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.

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