First of all, this film is way too long for its own good. Secondly, it’s the kind of science-fiction that works better the less you think about it.
That said, Paycheck isn’t nearly as bad or uninteresting as has been said. And I can’t help but think that a good bit of the negativity surrounding the film wouldn’t exist if it starred anyone but Ben Affleck (well, maybe not Mark Wahlberg either). It’s hardly that Affleck is bad in the movie; he’s certainly not extraordinary, but his performance as scientific-engineering whiz Michael Jennings is perfectly adequate.
The problem is that no one — myself included — can get past all the Ben and J-Lo overkill. Will they get married? Won’t they get married? Did they get married? Did Ben cheat on Jen? Did he get a free gift certificate for a lobotomy this Christmas? And on and on to the point where the questions have transformed into a kind of desperate plea: Can’t they both just go away?
Honestly, though, the whole sick-making Bennifer Business bears no real relevance to how good or bad Paycheck actually is. And if you can put that into perspective, the film is a pretty decent sub-Hitchcock thriller. More correctly, it’s a kind of sub-ersatz-one, having far more to do with enjoyable Hitch imitations like Edward Dmytryk’s Mirage and Stanley Donen’s Arabesque (both of which starred Gregory Peck, whose performances weren’t especially more inspired than Affleck’s are here).
The amnesia aspect of Paycheck’s plot is, in fact, remarkably similar in some ways to the one in Mirage (and even more like the one in its remake, Jigsaw). The major difference is that Jennings’ amnesia in Paycheck is very deliberately engineered — and with his own consent. Paycheck is also very reminiscent of those earlier films in its generally upscale urban setting, its heroes and villains almost invariably well-dressed in gray business suits (comic-relief sidekick Paul Giamatti to one side), its obvious love affair with its own clever plot twists, and its overall tone.
Jennings is a computer expert who specializes in taking other people’s creations apart and recreating them for rival companies. After each such job, however, his memory is erased so that he has no clue about the exact nature of his “creation.” (This is actually one of the more dubious aspects of the plot, since he still knows what he duplicated and for whom.) Things change when his supposed friend, Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), offers him the job of a lifetime — a chance to score about $100 million for two to three years of his life. Why he trusts Jimmy is a very good question (you can tell just from his haircut that the guy’s bad news).
Greed and the requirements of the story win out, of course, and three years later, Jennings finds himself with no idea what he’s been doing — and, as it turns out, with no money to show for it. Instead, he has an envelope containing 19 items that make no sense to him. Worse, he also has a date with death, thanks to Jimmy, and the FBI on his trail over patents he applied for on items that were stolen from the U.S. government. Suddenly, incomprehensible items in the envelope prove to be lifesavers, turning Jennings into something resembling a super-secret-agent. He comes then to understand what is happening and the nature of the project he must have been working on, while the story itself turns into a Hitchcockian man-on-the-run tale.
The situation is complicated by Jennings’ three-year romantic involvement with Rachel (Uma Thurman), a biologist (I’m convinced they mean botanist, judging from her work, but they say biologist), of whom he also has no memory, but about whom he has given himself clues. This leads to a fairly accomplished sequence involving a Rachel double being palmed off on him (this is known as Hitchcock by way of Brian De Palma), some clever story twists, and a few credible action sequences that have the good sense to poke fun at the very concept of Ben Affleck, Action Hero.
The film’s science-fiction aspects are far and away its weakest parts — managing to be at once unconvincing and rather silly. And there’s no denying that Paycheck ultimately feels padded. Still, I didn’t have a bad time watching it, I admired its slick professionalism and I had to admit that the story was occasionally almost as cleverly developed as its creators thought.
I wouldn’t exactly suggest rushing out to see this. Still, I can think of a lot worse ways to spend a couple hours at the movies — and a few of them are also in town right now.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke