Would you give up three years' worth of memories for $92 million? For that amount of money, most people might--and that's exactly what Michael Jennings agrees to do in this sci-fi thriller. Unfortunately, Paycheck fails to fully explore the interesting question it poses and regresses into a brainless actioner.
Destroying memories is nothing new to Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), a ''reverse-engineer'' who earns his living deconstructing high-tech equipment and reassembling it with even more advanced technology for corporations willing to pay the price. The projects normally take Michael about six weeks to complete, after which his memory is erased so he won't divulge any company secrets. His latest job for Allcom Inc., however, is a three-year project with an eight-figure bottom line. But once the project has been completed and Michael's memory has been wiped, he is told he agreed to forfeit the payment, is handed a manila envelope with his personal belongings and told to have a nice life. Since he has no memory of the past, Michael has no way of knowing what he has and hasn't agreed to--but he's certainly puzzled by the 19 trinkets in the envelope. There's a pack of cigarettes, a matchbook, hairspray, ball bearings, an allen key and more, and none if it is what he surrendered three years ago. Michael discovers that the objects are in fact clues to unlocking what really happened at Allcom, and with the help of his lover and coworker Rachel (Uma Thurman), whom he can't remember ever loving, he tries to unlock the secrets of the past three years. Problem is, if and when he does, Allcom will have him killed.
Affleck's performances in Paycheck is important because the audience needs to sympathize with his character--a somewhat greedy technology thief--for the film to work. As Michael, Affleck is able to churn out a likeable character despite his unethical line of work; he's an antihero measured by his courageous actions rather than his morals. Surprisingly, this immoral protagonist strategy works to redeem Affleck's character: Michael alienates the audience with his corrupt job but wins them back by trying to fix what he did. As Michael's love interest, the dazzling Thurman could have played this not-so-challenging role with her eyes closed, and she handles some key scenes in the film skillfully, including one in which she realizes her lover of three years doesn't remember her or their life. It's moving, if slightly awkward, to watch the heartbroken Rachel's reaction as Michael unresponsively flips through a photo album filled with 5x7 glossies of the two of them together, and Michael's memory loss provides an acceptable rationale for what would otherwise be a complete lack of chemistry between the two stars, who make a better action duo then they do a romantic couple.
Director John Woo has a knack for slick action sequences and well-choreographed stunts, with stunning sets as the backdrop. But while these elements worked with his past roster of thrillers such as Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2, Paycheck would have benefited from fewer chases and shootouts and more psychological drama. The story is based on a 1953 short story from prolific sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, whose fiction has spawned the films Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. The appeal of Dick's work is the conflict he frequently explores between technology and humanity, and Paycheck is an intriguing film until it loses site of that theme. Paycheck starts off as an fascinating psychological mystery, but once the details of Michael's experience at Allcom are revealed halfway through the film, it degenerates into a typical shoot-'em-up actioner with drawn-out chase scenes and a sappy ending that doesn't do justice to its theme of humanity vs. technology. The film also has its share of plot holes and inconsistencies (which can't be revealed without spoiling the mystery) and has some visuals that are a little too farfetched to believe, even for a sci-fi pic: When Michael has his memory erased, for example, are we really expected to believe that scientists can view, rewind and fast-forward through his memory as it appears on their monitor, complete with edits and shifts in perspective?
Paycheck could have been an intriguing psychological thriller, but John Woo stopped payment on that good idea and resorted to what he knows best: the schlocky actioner.