Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.
“The number one thriller in the country.” This claim, in a recent advertisement for John Woo’s new movie, is true. It’s also crass and silly: Paycheck is the only thriller currently in wide release, unless you count Peter Pan. Still, it’s easy to sympathize with the promoter assigned to come up with a hook. What can you possibly say about yet another filmic iteration of a Philip K. Dick memory overhaul story, the one that stars not Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise or even Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Ben Affleck?
The premise will be familiar to anyone with even passing knowledge of a Dick plot: Michael Jennings (Affleck, as impassive as you’ve ever seen him) is what they might call in some future a “reverse engineer.” That is, he breaks down already-on-the-market technology, steals and retools it, then has his memory of the theft and the software “wiped.” He achieves this last by a process approximating a brain boil—heating of a particular lobe apparently erases a particular time, say, the past three weeks. For the Dick protagonist, messing with memory is always trouble: recall, identity, and politics are of a piece, and efforts to control of any one of these elements are sure to disrupt the other two.
Michael doesn’t set out to control anything: he just wants to get paid. And he does this regularly, with the help of lovable tech Shorty (Paul Giamatti) and their smarmy billionaire employer, Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), CEO for a company called—so subtly—ALLCOM. The turning point comes when Rethrick offers $92 million for an especially hazardous and lengthy gig. Returning to himself three years later, Michael is horrified to find that something has gone wrong. Not only has he lost his hefty paycheck, but he’s also being hunted by the feds, in the form of Agent Dodge (Joe Morton) and Agent Klein (Michael C. Hall), as well as Rethrick’s own muscle, in the form of a snarly fellow named Wolf (Colm Feore) and lackeys with varying neck sizes.
Fortunately for him, Michael has sent himself an envelope full of everyday items—keys, cigarettes, a watch, a metro card—that turn out to be helpful in very specific situations. While these items might represent the implausible ingenuity of sender and receiver (both versions of Michael), they certainly represent the film’s major logic hole. That is, Past Michael has stolen the technology for a future-seeing machine and, having seen a bad future, has sent forward items to help Future Michael outmaneuver the bad guys. That any of these maneuvers might change that future, and so render the entire plan void, apparently never occurred to anyone involved with the project. As they say, logic schmogic.
That’s not to say that a rational narrative is the most important factor in an SF movie, or even a thriller, if that’s what this is. At the same time, though, Paycheck doesn’t even attend to its own internal sense: If the future changes moment by moment, then how can Michael possibly anticipate it? And how dim are these feds anyway, smoking in interrogation rooms equipped with supersensitive smoke detectors and losing their mark in conventional city traffic even though they have surveillance helicopters churning overhead?
If it’s not going to bother with such details, the movie might have amped up the fantastic quotient, rather than settling for what amounts to a film offers up a more or less standard search for identity (though Michael technically knows who he is, he’s missing those three crucial years), plus a dollop of Woo’s well-known stylistic signatures: slow motion shooting and car-chasing, a two-gun face-off between enemies-who-might-have-been-friends, even the fluttering white dove.
This detail, usually deemed a sign of the director’s enthusiastic Catholicism when it shows up in his other films, here suggests a theme Paycheck doesn’t actually take up, namely, the tensions among fate, faith, and free will. Such tensions are connected with Dick’s longstanding interest in the interplay of identity and memory (see also: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for Blade Runner). All the hardware in Paycheck (brain boiling, chemical adjustments, the whirring future machine) is surely less interesting than the questions they jumpstart: who is Michael anyway? The greedy cuss who takes the original assignment? Or the visibly nicer, more emphatically moralistic hero who tries to save the planet?
As Michael reinvents himself and his future up as he goes along, he has help from the usual sources, including the step-ahead corporate nemeses (Rethrick and Wolf), the step-behind feds, and the briefly reappearing Shorty (it’s a good guess that this character’s part was bigger at one point, then chopped up). He also has input from The Girl, in this case, the lithe and lovely Rachel (Uma Thurman), an ostensibly brilliant biologist also working for Rethrick, whom he happens to meet before he goes into his last assignment. She reminds him of their three-year romance with a photo album and some teary blue eyes, but Michael’s pretty much blank on how great they were together. Luckily, Thurman has retained her martial arts training from Kill Bill Vol. 1, which she puts to good use when facing some of the lugs traipsing around with Wolf.
Though Rachel/Thurman brings unexpected intertextual entertainment to the proceedings, her gig is limited: for the most part, she waits for Michael to make decisions, to realize the significance of the next item in his self-addressed envelope. The film offers one other reference, and it hardly matters whether it was intentional. When Agent Dodge is picking through some post-explosion rubble, he finds a vital clue as to Michael’s scheming, and instead of delivering it to his superiors, he hides it away with a smile. For an instant, you might imagine that Joe Morton has found the Terminator’s chip again. It fits as well as any other logical leap in Paycheck.