January, 2004, Thriller

Directed by:John Woo

Starring:Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, and Uma Thurman

Hard-boiled action flicks, (Diehard, Lethal Weapon et al) may be to movies what gangsta rap is to classic music, but the good ones exhibit a discipline similar, in their own unassuming way, to superbly performed orchestral pieces; they're conducted by someone who gets the crescendos just right for the audience--in timing, intensity and emotional release. That's why masters of the genre, working with the most hackneyed material, still manage to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It may be a modest accomplishment, but when successfully accomplished, not an inconsiderable one.

One of the best at this type of celluloid mayhem is Chinese-born director John Woo, whose work for the famous Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong includes films like A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled, which made an international star of Chow Yun-Fat, known to most American audiences for his work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

At their best, Woo's Hong-Kong thrillers precariously balanced dazzling action sequences with completely mundane plots and settings. His specialty lies in staging frenetic combat, (armed or hand-to-hand) in locations the audience instinctively accepts as non-threatening sanctuaries in modern society; busy restaurants, quiet homes, high-tech hospitals, empty churches. Woo's early films inevitably worked best when he constructed an approach to his elaborate spasms of violence which permitted his viewers to anticipate the carnage his characters will produce by signaling their arrival with little tips-- visual lit fuses of varying lengths. The payoffs were frequently thrilling and always outlandish.  

Armed with his early success, Woo migrated to Hollywood in the early 90's, obtaining access to the money and technical expertise that promised to make his exciting, if limited, directorial skill a force to be reckoned with here in the States. But he appears to have run out of creative gas--after a series of middling attempts, (Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Windtalkers) Woo has managed here to take major stars and a considerable budget and turn out the one thing his type of director absolutely cannot afford--a painfully dull movie.

In partial explanation, Woo works for the first time in Paycheck with the most unimaginative leading man in this generation, Ben Affleck. He plays a nerdy engineer who doesn’t object to doing a bit of industrial espionage, even when it means that his illegally-obtained memory will be neurologically erased after doing so. (Late last year, a small, independently-made British film entitled Cypher employed this same plot device, featuring a brilliant Jeremy Northam in the leading role. Made for a fraction of the cost--but with 10 times the wit and intelligence—that movie puts this one to shame.)

 When a classified but particularly lucrative contract presents itself, Affleck agrees to do work about which he'll remember nothing upon its completion. Three years pass and Ben returns from this professional limbo to collect his sizeable paycheck, but he's immediately pursued by government agents and bad guys that intent on discovering what he insists he can't recall…

This kind of movie always employs a supportive female, who manages to save the hero's bacon, and this one's no exception; Uma Thurman, (looking as though she suffered permanent battle fatigue from her chores in the recent Kill Bill diptych) is a world renowned scientist whose instant attraction to Ben is an inexplicable as her extensive familiarity with marital arts. With her help, (and a collection of random objects he's mailed to himself as a memory-jogging insurance policy) Ben unravels the mystery of what he's worked on and how to shut it down before it destroys the world. 

That of course, is a task no one in their right mind would ask old Ben to take on, for curiously enough, this kind of cinematic silliness requires an actor with more than a little charisma and credibility to overcome the script's implausibility; Affleck, fresh from his disastrous attempt at imitating a Mafia-type lowlife in Gigli just doesn't posses the necessary equipment to fulfill the assignment. What's worse, Woo inexplicably fails to competently stage the film's action sequences; violence flares and ebbs without being first properly set up and as a result, storyline incoherence mixed with awful characterizations produces nothing more than a fitful, two-hour snooze. 

Woo should return to his Hong Kong roots--and Affleck would be well advised, like General McArthur a half century ago, to just fade away….. 

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