Michael Jennings is a “reverse engineer.” He’s a genius consultant hired by companies to deconstruct their competitors’ high-tech breakthroughs and improve on them so as to render the original obsolete. As is customary, Michael works for several months on a top-secret project, then has his memory of that specific stretch systematically erased. In exchange, he collects a handsome paycheck.
One day an old friend named Rethrick propositions him with an offer that would set Michael up for life—a three-year, $92 million deal. He accepts, leaving his personal affects at the door much the way an airline passenger might unload keys and loose change before passing through the metal detector. But when Michael completes the job, he’s surprised to find the articles in the envelope very different from the ones he’d checked. Furthermore, he is informed that he willingly forfeited payment. Since his memory of the past three years has been wiped clean, he’s hard-pressed to explain either of these anomalies. Suddenly he’s being hunted by the FBI, as well as Rethrick’s men. Why are they after him? What was he working on? The only clues he has to go on are the 20 cryptic items he supposedly mailed to himself. Among them are keys to the past three years of his life, as well as tools he’ll need to stay alive and solve the puzzle.
Michael isn’t a cold-blooded killer, despite the position he’s put in. On several occasions, he has a bad guy dead to rights and shows mercy. He and Rachel come to one another’s aid. When it seems his fate is sealed, Michael refuses to let her endanger herself by staying by his side. Upon realizing the apocalyptic nature of Michael’s work for Rethrick, the couple feels they are responsible to undo the work that could lead to Armageddon.
Michael tries to relieve stress by handling balls emblazoned with the yin and yang of Chinese cosmology. The camera pans a model of a human wrist and hand divided into regions for use by a palmist. But the film concludes that any insight into one’s future is self-defeating (“If you show someone their future, they have no future. You take away the mystery. They have no hope”). Because of his experiments to control weather and see into the future, it could be argued that Rethrick has a God complex.
Michael is romantically indiscriminate. Upon completing a job, he and a female employer kiss passionately (she casts professionalism to the wind, confident that his memory of their encounter will be among those erased). Michael comes on to Rachel at a cocktail party, suggesting that they skip the small talk and just “find someplace to go.” Although she rejects his proposition, the two do become romantically involved later on (it seems she was charmed by his boorish lust and just didn’t admit it). The couple is shown kissing on several occasions. One involves him waking her up in the morning.
Director John Woo is famous for action sequences with destruction galore and frequent flurries of gunfire. If there’s a saving grace, it’s the film’s relatively low body count. Assaults feature punches, kicks, wrestling, numerous people crashing through windows, and a woman being knocked out by an expertly swung handbag. A photo shows the bloody corpse of a man who’d been thrown 140 feet to his death. Michael sets fire to aerosol spray, blinding an attacker. He beats up other pursuers and has a vision of his own death at the hands of an unseen gunman. A sniper shoots a man in the chest. Rethrick strings up Michael by the throat. An explosion tosses people around. A villain shoots one of his own men. Other bad guys accidentally shoot each another. While running from the FBI, Michael accidentally levels innocent pedestrians. He is subdued with a stun gun that fires darts into his chest, administering a painful electric shock. A wild car chase ends with one vehicle shorn in two, another bursting into flame and a third smashing and flipping in the air (it's implied that there are no survivors).
Crude or Profane Language
Fewer than 20 profanities, though five are s-words and five more are misuses of Jesus’ name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A man and woman drink champagne. Characters puff on cigars. Others smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Michael is basically a high-tech thief and corporate mercenary, but he’s treated as a noble professional. Although there’s some truth to Rachel’s statement, “Some of the best things in life are total mistakes,” in context the comment could reinforce a dangerous romantic notion for lovers tempted to live in the moment. There’s an unsettling hypocrisy about Michael’s decision to use his machine one last time to check out his own future before blowing up his creation. The implication is that a nation looking into the future to defend itself can only end in widespread evil, whereas his using it to protect himself is OK and doesn’t violate the natural order of things. Odd logic. Michael plays the lottery and wins $90 million. Of course, it could be argued that it’s not really gambling when you know you’re choosing the winning numbers (then it’s just cheating).
Anyone who sees a lot of movies develops an affection for a few actors they’d watch in just about anything. Conversely, there are other performers whose names on a project are an immediate turn-off. Their mere presence in a film is like spending a two-hour flight seated beside someone who doesn’t know when enough perfume is enough. My own list of those actors is extremely short, but two who rank right at the top are Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. I say that to confess that Paycheck had two strikes against it before the lights ever went down. Yet as a content analyst, I did my best to put aside personal biases and review the film without prejudice. And I can honestly say it was still a stinker. Not just because of the profanity and violence, but because John Woo lacks the subtlety to make this man-on-the-run tale anything more than a loud, kinetic potboiler loaded with clichés and stock characters.
Movies based on the sci-fi stories of Philip K. Dick have either blasted their way into cultural consciousness (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall) or crashed and burned with dynamic fury (Imposter). Dick’s tales usually focus on an everyman swept up in an extreme set of futuristic circumstances that require the audience to suspend a whopping portion of disbelief. Precognition. Memory erasure. Time travel. All of these sci-fi conceits can be loads of fun—and provide valuable social commentary—when woven into a film’s elaborate, otherworldly tapestry. However, they can also be enormously frustrating in the hands of a director less interested in enveloping us in an alternate universe than in showing people flying through panes of glass in slow motion ... again and again.
Woo’s heavy-handed direction only amplifies other flaws, such as cheesy dialogue, schmaltzy sentimental music and the fact that Paycheck is mind-numbingly implausible. Amidst chases and explosions, Affleck’s character must rely on coincidences of the most timely sort, combined with an unconscious awareness of how to react to them. It’s all because he saw his own future and, like a prophetic MacGyver, sent himself common items to help him get out of fatal jams. Call me crazy, but doesn’t it stand to reason that escaping any one of those bizarre situations would inevitably change his future and impact subsequent encounters? If you’re prone to asking questions like that, Paycheck will leave you wishing you’d seen far enough into the future to have passed on this film. You have to give the filmmakers credit, though. When all is said and done, everyone from Woo to Affleck to the guy responsible for pushing the catering cart will get what they came for: a paycheck.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Ben Affleck as Michael Jennings; Uma Thurman as Dr. Rachel Porter; Aaron Eckhart as Jim Rethrick; Paul Giamatti as Shorty; Colm Feore as Wolfe; Joe Morton as Agent Dodge; Michael C. Hall as Agent Klein