Dec 31, 2003 at 12:00 am

Just once I want to see the bad guys wearing Birkenstocks and hemp clothing and eating Mueslix as they conspire to rule the world with bad jam-band bootlegs and underarm stink, funded by their combined trust fund accounts and gravity-bong sales to junior-high stoners. Until some audacious filmmaker steals this idea, we are going to be treated to the likes of Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), the sharply dressed, neatly coifed, and immensely unctuous owner of Allcom, a company that employs engineer Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) to perfect its see-the-future-and-take-over-the-world machine.

Maybe it all goes back to Einstein, whose theories and visage are co-opted in John Woo’s Paycheck, and who once said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” It can also be said that Woo does not play dice with his action flicks. All of his trademark moves are present and accounted for. The “Mexican standoff” makes a half-dozen appearances. Bodies fly through the air with nary a nod to gravity and other physical realities. Guns are tossed between allies (in this outing he provides us an amusing twist by allowing a remotely controlled robot to do the deed). What’s missing, unfortunately, is the palpable tension and drama of Woo’s brilliant 1997 offering Face/Off or the over-the-top thrills of his 1989 masterpiece The Killer.

Paycheck suffers from a collection of bland bad guys (unlike Nicolas Cage’s sadistic turn in Face/Off) and the borrowed and dead-tired premise of science + business = smooth dudes in suits with slicked back hair trying to take over the world.

Philip K. Dick’s mind-twisting fiction is the inspiration for the story, as it has been for the superior Blade Runner and the merely adequate Total Recall. In Paycheck, the Dickian twist is that Michael’s memory is wiped out after each job, thereby protecting the high-tech company’s bottom line by preventing Michael from selling what he just invented. When old-buddy Rethrick taps Michael for a much more ambitious project, one that will require three years of his time and a new method of “mind-erase,” the engineer/inventor signs on. The $90 million payday clinches the deal. One last job. No more potentially fatal “mind erasures.” He’ll be set for life. If this sounds too good to be true, give yourself an A+ in Action Movie Cliché 101. Give yourself extra credit if you guessed that Michael would have a bug-eyed comic-relief sidekick named Shorty (Paul Giamatti) and a wooden yet beautiful love interest that adores horticulture and can beat up men twice her size, Rachel (the equally bug-eyed Uma Thurman).

If Paycheck has a saving grace, it’s the fact that this film will provide you countless hours of fun going over the impossibilities of the “if-I-can-see-the-future-then-why-can’t-I-change-the-future-and-if-I-can-change-the-future-then-why-didn’t-I-see-myself-changing-the-future-in-the-first-place” paradox. Don’t hurt yourself.

Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].