Would you give up three months of day-to-day memory for a big paycheck, enough money to let you create better memories in the future? Jennings (Ben Affleck) does so with ease. He's a hired brain who helps tech companies do jobs they'd just as soon have him forget, like rip off a competitor's product. When the task is completed, his manager Shorty (Paul Giamatti) simply extracts the relevant memory bits.
Jennings accepts a job from his old buddy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), now head of Allcom (whatever they do). It's a three-year memory-wipe, but it comes with an eight-figure payoff. A blink and three years later, Jennings is perplexed to learn that shortly before the job ended, he signed away $90 million in Allcom stock for an envelope with 20 worthless objects: matchbook, paper clip, fortune-cookie slip, hairspray, cigarettes and so on. Worse still, his old boss Rethrick is trying to kill him and the FBI is on his tail -- and of course, he can't remember what he did to piss everyone off or why he paid millions for a paper clip.
It's a good premise (the film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story) that becomes less interesting as the film progresses. Musings on the ethics of bartering with memory and on the culpability of being memory-less get reconfigured into, of all things, a moral parable about the control of the future. But mostly, any thoughtfulness gets subsumed by action, with car chases, shoot-'em-ups, fisticuffs and two scenes featuring director John Woo's patented two-men-face-off-with-guns-in-face maneuver. What should be a good brain-tickler resolves typically with a really big explosion.
Affleck is barely believable as a high-tech genius capable of reverse-engineering the future. In his snazzy suits, designer sunglasses and aura of smugness, he looks more like the firm's junior in-house counsel. Worst of all, Affleck is woefully flat: Discovering that he's lost three years of his mind and $90 million, he looks about as perturbed as if he'd found his name is misspelled on his checks. A raggedy-looking Uma Thurman is Jennings' girlfriend-from-the-mysterious-past; only Eckhart brings any zing to his one-dimensional character.
Paycheck is entertaining in a popcorn kinda way, but I'd hoped for a brainier thriller tricked up with a little action. Instead this is a run-of-the-mill actioner with some light cautions about messing with technology (warnings which, by the way, are in grave danger of disappearing into plot holes). And, while Jennings supposedly makes a huge sacrifice to rescue his own dormant morality, the film blows all that credibility in its final scene.