No one has ever accused John Woo of being too subtle. When his films click, as they very frequently do, they supersede their sometimes outrageous premises and serpentine plots to deliver the kind of visceral action sequences that very few, if any, Hollywood directors can match. When they fizzle, they're full of sound and fury, signifying nothing more than hundreds of millions of dollars down the proverbial drain. Paycheck, Woo's 2003 opus now making it to Blu-ray for the first time, falls somewhere in between. It's patently silly, but still intriguing enough to hold the viewer's interest if that interest doesn't fall through the raging plot holes which decorate the fabric of the film like negative polka dots.
Based on a Philip K. Dick story, Paycheck documents the exciting, if improbable, adventures of Michael Jennings, a "reverse engineer" whose ability to figure out high-tech stuff like holograms makes him a favorite hired gun for companies that want to, um, "borrow" that technology, slightly modify it, and then utilize it for their own fun and profit. Unfortunately they also don't ever want Michael to remember what he's done for them, so his pal Shorty (Paul Giamatti) selectively erases Michael's memory after each job, just as Michael is handed his--yep, you guessed it--paycheck. Most of these jobs have Michael losing a few weeks to a few months of his internal clock.
The plot, so to speak, thickens when a college buddy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhardt), now a kind of malevolent Bill Gates type, tells Michael he wants to use his services for a job that will take three years, but which will pay off in the tens of millions of dollars. Michael, after ruminating for about 30 seconds over the quandary of losing 36 months of his pretty lame existence, agrees.
Quick cut to three years in the future--Michael comes out of his memory erasure to find he's signed away his rights to his huge paycheck and has instead mailed himself twenty completely nonsensical items. He quickly finds himself enmeshed in a huge conspiracy involving seeing into the future, even as he can't fathom what in his past has led him to this place. It's absolutely silly, sort of like the amnesiac thriller of the 60s Mirage mixed with the "wrong man" elements of Hitchcock classics like North by Northwest. The fun of Paycheck, once the "reveal" is in as to why the items were mailed to Jennings, is a guessing game as to how our hero, being chased both by Federal Agents and Rethrick and his hired gun hooligans, is going to use seemingly everyday items like a paper clip or a silver dollar to help outwit, outmatch and outplay these people who seem to be literally gunning for him. As is standard fare in any Woo action adventure flick, we get chase scenes galore, including some splendidly staged car and motorcycle stunts that utilize location work in Seattle quite effectively.
It's funny to hear Woo state up front that he was actually looking to hire Matt Damon for the Jennings role, but that Damon suggested Affleck when he himself wasn't available for the shoot. Affleck actually does OK in this part, which seems tailor made to his sometimes patented dumbfounded look. Some of the action scenes are a bit hard to swallow, with our reverse engineer suddenly whacking people right and left with large wooden poles or doing karate moves with nary the blink of an eye.
Uma Thurman is on hand in a pretty shamefully underwritten role, a woman scientist working for the Rethrick organization who of course becomes Jennings' love interest and partner in figuring out what exactly is going on. She's lovely, of course, but the scenes where she valiantly tries to inject some real human emotion may strike some viewers as actually funny, given the hyperbolic context of the rest of the film.
What works splendidly here, aside from the fun of figuring out how each item is going to play into the plot, is that crazy Woo humor, visual and verbal non sequiturs and throwaway lines that are so silly that they become goofily lovable. You can weather an incredible chase sequence, with guns blazing, cars crashing and Affleck and Thurman escaping by the hair of their chinny-chin-chins, only to have a last minute fly in the ointment when Thurman drops the envelope that contains all the stuff that's been mailed. That sets off a whole second wave of mayhem, which is capped by Affleck spinning a motorcycle into her to protect her, at which point she calmly lifts the envelope and blithely chirps, "Got it!" And we're off to the next slam bang sequence.
Paycheck is a film that revels in its own silliness, which is what ultimately saves it from the fizzle category. The whole film is full of sly winks, whether it's Giamatti's funny turn as the sidekick, or, frankly, the whole send up of the corporate Microsoft behemoth. This is a film that celebrates its unlikeliness. If you're someone who needs every plot strand perfectly threaded through to weave a coherent whole, you're going to either be extremely frustrated by Paycheck or laughing hysterically at its utter lack of logic at times. If you're more of a go with the flow viewer, and enjoy a fun puzzle at the center of some great stunt and action work, Paycheck delivers a tidy, if not overwhelming, sum.