Everyone earns their wages on “Paycheck,” a solid, entertaining thriller with a bounty of silly but fun gunplay, hand-to-hand brawls and car chases.
Starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman and directed by action master John Woo, “Paycheck” is the latest flick adapted from the mind-bending science fiction of Philip K. Dick, whose work was the source for “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report.”
Woo and screenwriter Dean Georgaris admirably flesh out Dick’s short story to give Affleck a fresh scenario to carry out his specialty — saving the world.
Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a genius-for-hire in a near future where reverse engineering — disassembling gadgets and piecing them back together into a superior product — is a common means for corporations to swipe competitors’ technology then pawn off the improved version as their own.
Since it’s shady, super-secret work, Michael agrees to have all memory of the time he spent on a project erased upon completion, in exchange for handsome paychecks. Michael figures it’s a fair trade: He sacrifices any recollection of the drudgery of work, remembering only the good times spent living it up between jobs.
“My memories are basically highlights,” Michael tells Shorty (Paul Giamatti), the pal who oversees his memory wipes. “It’s a good life. The stuff you erase, it doesn’t matter.”
Things turn sour after billionaire buddy Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) hires Michael for a three-year development project, promising a multimillion-dollar payday.
Once Michael completes the assignment and has his memory erased, he finds he’s forfeited all payment and is pursued by federal agents, who accuse him of stealing government technology. He also cannot recall Rachel (Thurman), a biologist who works for Rethrick and has been Michael’s lover for three years.
All Michael has is an envelope full of junk — a cigarette lighter, a can of hairspray, keys that fit unknown locks — that he inexplicably sent to himself.
What he initially takes as clues to his missing three years turn out to be tools for his survival in Rethrick’s plot to predict and control the future.
Slick action compensates for plot holesGeorgaris’ script stretches credibility as characters continually leap to exactly right conclusions on the sketchiest of information. Yet Woo’s rousing action sequences more than compensate for the plot flaws.
“Paycheck” relies on good old-fashioned stunts instead of overblown computer-generated effects. Woo fashions a string of over-the-top chases, fights and shoot-’em-ups, at which Michael is curiously proficient considering he’s a science geek.
Eckhart as the villain and Giamatti as comic relief fill their roles as well as can be expected given the story’s shallow drama. Colm Feore as Rethrick’s henchman and Joe Morton and Michael C. Hall as FBI agents are fairly superficial figures.
Fresh off her bloody vengeance quest in “Kill Bill — Vol. 1” and its upcoming sequel, Thurman seems to be having a blast with “Paycheck,” leaping into the fisticuffs to defend her man, even if he can’t remember who she is.