Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) has a very specific field of expertise: he is able to take a piece of new technology, break it down into its component parts, and then make a replica of it for rival companies, improving and altering the original just enough to be judged as different. To cover up his tracks, these companies insist he is given a memory wipe, just as today when his latest job sees him recreate a holographic monitor, then the last two months he spent on it are erased from his mind. But what if Michael was offered a commission big enough to set him up for life?
Paycheck was one of many science fiction movies based on the writings of cult author Philip K. Dick, although from what director John Woo obviously thought he was less recreating that mindbending plotting and more constructing an homage to Alfred Hitchcock. So while there was a strong element of speculative fiction propelling the story, what he was more interested in was the suspense and naturally, the action, though by this time his trademarked slow motion gunfights, Mexican standoffs and those doves were beginning to look a tad overfamiliar.
Even hackneyed, which might explain why Paycheck didn't do so well at the box office, or not as well as a would-be blockbuster might have hoped to do. However, this may have suffered from a fatigue with Woo's stylings at the time, but over the years viewers have caught it on television and thought, you know, this isn't bad at all. There were problems, the main one being that it took far too long to get to the point, as when we were twenty minutes in the main plot hadn't started yet, but once Michael is assigned his mission to live three years as one of Alcom's operatives, three years which will then be wiped, the intrigue picks up.
As Alcom is led by James Rethrick, and as he is played by Aaron Eckhart in full-on smarm mode, you can guess there may be more to this than meets the eye, so when Michael awakens what feels like seconds after his injection, that time has passed and he is ready to spend his millions. Yet there's a snag - when he goes to pick them up, he finds all his cash has been forfeited for a large envelope full of random objects, and he is understandably baffled. Why give up all that money for this collection of junk? The answer to that you will likely be way ahead of, but as with too much else here the hero takes far too long to work things out.
This was Affleck in his slightly bland but dependable leading man persona, something audiences began to be turned off by for some odd reason as he was more likely to take up space in the gossip pages than make popular movies at this stage. That didn't last when he began to fashion his own vehicles later on, so Paycheck has a novelty of seeing the direction he might have continued in, of the undemanding light protagonist in the Tom Cruise mould, which his old friend Matt Damon seemed to have settled into with far more welcome from the public. This was not a one man show, as there was a decent cast backing him up between the gunplay and chases, so Uma Thurman was the slightly disposable love interest and Paul Giamatti showed up as the best friend, but what kept you hooked here was the ingenuity of the narrative, which after all was simply a jigsaw puzzle, though a theme of knowing the future leaving you bereft of free will was stimulating too. Music by John Powell.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.