Paycheck is an efficient, anonymous chase movie that looks ugly, makes little sense and goes on for too long. It's not exactly bad - if it was half an hour shorter, it might be a good B-movie - but considering it's based on a story by Philip K Dick (Blade Runner, Minority Report), directed by John Woo (The Killer, Face/Off) and wastes such a great cast, it can only be seen as a huge disappointment. John Woo comes off the worst. Once acclaimed as the best action director alive, he's never seemed more like a jobbing hack. He delivers one thrilling motorcycle chase and a couple of decent stickfighting bits. The rest is just people shooting at each other and fighting on catwalks, material that would look at home in any straight to video Van Damme flick. Maybe Woo was defeated by the bland, grey look of the film. Every location is a dull laboratory, subway station, shopping mall or construction site. The only clues to who made Paycheck are Woo's signature Mexican stand-offs and the glowing white dove from Mission: Impossible 2 which makes a cameo appearance during the climax.
The plot follows the blueprints of previous Dick adaptations Total Recall and Minority Report, with its hero on the run from a high-tech conspiracy he doesn't understand. That hero is Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), a reverse engineer and the best in the business. He can take apart any new technology, figure out how it works and even improve it. His skills are highly sought after by unscrupulous electronics corporations who hire him to steal their rivals' new products. Due to the illicit nature of his work, Jennings must consent to having his memory wiped clean at the end of every job so his knowledge can never be used against his employers. He's just completed a job when he gets a call from an old college friend, James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), now the owner of computer giant Allcom. Rethrick has a proposition - three years of his life working on an unspecified secret project in return for an eight figure payday. Despite misgivings about the amount of memory he would have to lose, Jennings can't say no to a golden opportunity for early retirement.
Three years later, the job complete and his memory gone, Jennings leaves Allcom and goes to the bank to cash in $90 million worth of stocks. His elation is to be short-lived. He's told that just a few days earlier, he signed away all his options and instead left himself an envelope filled with apparently worthless everyday objects. It gets worse. The FBI have charged him with treason for stealing classified government technology and back at Allcom, his supposed friend Rethrick has dispatched a team of hitmen with orders to kill him. Hunted by both sides, Jennings has only two allies - Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman), his lover during the three years he can't remember, and the contents of his envelope, which mysteriously turn out to be exactly what he needs in every dangerous situation.
Of course there's an explanation for all this and of course it has to do with the secret project Jennings was working on. Unfortunately, when we find out, it raises more questions than it answers. Like, for instance, why is it in Rethrick's interests to stop Jennings? And why did he hire a reverse engineer to complete an unfinished project when he had the original designer? Even the basic concept of Paycheck doesn't make much sense - what use is blanking Jennings' memory at the end of every job? If he knows he's worked for a particular firm and they release an amazing new product soon afterwards, surely he could put two and two together and all he'd have to do is study that product to work out what he must have done. It's nothing more than a plot gimmick to pad out the chase scenes. A similar idea was used to much better effect in last summer's excellent Cypher, in which Jeremy Northam was involved in the same sort of futuristic corporate intrigue. Make sure you check that one out on DVD when it's released. Paycheck can wait for a rainy Sunday afternoon.