Paycheck came as somewhat of a welcome relief for me, having spent the past several days sitting through the “take me serious” world of Oscar bait movies like Cold Mountain or the wonderful, yet emotionally draining Return of the King. Unlike those awards hopefuls, Paycheck is content to be fun science fiction, asking nothing more from the audience than that you pay attention. Every once in awhile it’s good to have something as simple as that.
Ben Affleck stars as Michael Jennings, a prosperous engineer, scratch that, a reverse engineer who makes his living by breaking down the new products of competitors for his employer. When he finishes, his memory of those weeks is completely erased, thus protecting his employer from patent prosecution. Normally, his jobs last only a month or two, resulting in a fairly small memory hole left in his life. But a billionaire acquaintance offers him the chance of a lifetime, a job that will cost him three years, but earn him more money than he could spend in a thousand years. Jennings accepts. Before he knows it, three years have passed and he remembers nothing. But he has 90 million dollars in the bank right? Nope. Apparently before his memory wipe, he forfeited his paycheck, and sent himself nineteen everyday items instead.
Now Jennings is stuck trying to recreate the last three years of his life. The government is out to get him, his former employer is trying to kill him, and he doesn’t remember his girlfriend (Uma Thurman). Luckily, Jennings has thought of everything. Well, not the current Jennings, but Jennings before his memory was deleted. That’s when director John Woo starts doing his thing, mixing in his usual crop of motorcycle chases and subway gun fights. Noticeably absent is the painful overuse of slow motion he accosted us with in Mission Impossible 2. In its place is a nicely paced little movie that lets its characters think when they need to and kick ass when they have to.
Affleck is capable as Jennings, stiff enough to be an engineer, suave enough to pull off his character’s playboy persona. Eckhart is, as usual, one dimensional and slimy. I tend to think of him as a badly drawn villain even when he isn’t playing one, and here he most definitely is. Uma Thurman is looking her age and doesn’t know it, but she’s just the girlfriend who rides around on the back of Jennings bike, so who cares? Drop any actress in her place and Paycheck would still turn out the same.
On a most basic level, Paycheck is enjoyable for its lean production design and the interesting way Affleck puzzles through his mystery. By the end though, I got the impression that the movie had grown a little bored with itself and just wanted to get the heck off the screen. It begins with a thought provoking idea and finishes with an easy action-out, that while not wholly unsatisfying, isn’t the slam bang wrap up the premise might have delivered. Woo’s lame attempt to throw in his signature dove, as usual, turns out laughable and Affleck’s character sort of just drifts off screen with a wimper.
Paycheck suffers from a few plot holes here and there and isn’t likely to change your movie life. Maybe it doesn’t quite do the original work of Philip K. Dick (upon which it is based) justice. But Woo has turned out a light-weight and entertaining piece of sci-fi, which if a bit unbelievable, seems to have the best intentions.