In the world of sci-fi literary giant Philip K. Dick, memory is a commodity and a liability. Memory is what his characters try to protect — or sell, as the case may be. Ultimately, memory is what the bad guys are after; it’s the last bastion of individuality in a corporate-controlled, ultra high-tech society. (This is, perhaps, what keeps drawing filmmakers to Dick’s material — after all, what is moviemaking if not the act of committing the memories made of light, sound and dialogue to celluloid?)
Dick’s protagonists walk in fear that their memories will be stolen or destroyed, thereby depriving them of their identity and humanity. In “Blade Runner,” for instance, an android is programmed with an entire lifetime of manufactured memories to fool her into thinking she’s human. In the latest Dick adaptation, “Paycheck,” which was published in 1953, a man agrees to surrender his memory in exchange for cash and state-of-the-art software, only to regret it from the bottom of his soul.
In 1982, when “Blade Runner” was released, it was sci-fi in all its glory and the warning signs pointed to a futuristic nightmare. Now with “Paycheck,” modern living and the Dick fable synchronize neatly. It is basically about the here and now. Trading memory for hard cash, in the light of the fact that so much of our memories, our identities, are pulled off a computer screen daily, comes off as distinctly ordinary.
Still, director John Woo (“Mission Impossible 2,” “Face/Off”) takes it upon himself to convert all the agonizing into entertainment — and overall he succeeds. In fact, Dick loyalists may find that Woo’s capacity for interpretation exceeds that of Steven Spielberg (“Minority Report”) or Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”). He taps straight into Dick’s pulp instincts and is careful to keep the whole package airy and lightweight, unencumbered by his predecessors’ knitted-brow philosophizing. Drawing his scenes with signature bold strokes and liberally peppering the story with distinctly antitechie car chases, kung-fu maneuvers and gunfights, “Paycheck” is blithely liberated from finicky directorial “vision.”
What vision Woo had was channeled shrewdly into selecting his cast. Ben Affleck plays whiz engineer Michael Jennings, who rents himself to high-tech outfits so they can outsmart other high-tech outfits. For security purposes, the companies clamp a device over his head and erase his memory during the period of his assignment. Affleck seems remarkably suited to this — who better to play a guy who habitually forgets large chunks out of his life? And away from the screen he’s also a self-proclaimed supernerd who assembles laptops from scratch. Consequently, he settles into the role with the ease of, well, a techie in his swivel chair, and the only false note is that he never truly seems to regret not remembering things.
Jennings is in such demand he has his own agent, Shorty (Paul Giamatti), to manage his ever-growing list of clients. Then he gets the offer of a lifetime — from a company called Allcom — to crack the code of a government-sponsored time machine. This time, though, the agreed term is three years instead of the usual couple of months. At the end of that time, Jennings forgets everything — but instead of the promised hefty paycheck he receives an envelope filled with small mundane objects sent by his former self. Things like a bus ticket, a fortune-cookie message, a paper clip — all these things point to impending catastrophe and also provide a puzzle that when assembled, will clue him in on the past three years of his life.
In terms of action, Affleck puts on a good show, but as befitting his nature as well as his character, he doesn’t seem to relish the idea of running around all that much. He comments in the production notes that Woo was constantly solicitous and worried that the physical choreography was too taxing.
On the other hand, it’s obvious Woo had no such reservations about costar Uma Thurman, who came to work straight off the set of “Kill Bill.” Thurman plays Rachel, Michael’s colleague/girlfriend during his stint at Allcom. After his dismissal, she helps battle the corporate evil-doers with such skill you wonder why they didn’t erase her memory first to avoid all the trouble.
Having said that, “Paycheck” never quite achieves the scale of Woo’s other works (less dynamite used) and you get the feeling he wasn’t quite comfortable having to tinker with smallish thingies. Woo stepped in at the 11th hour (Brett Ratner was initially named as director) and got the job done with skill and dexterity. But it’s obvious he misses a playing field bigger than the square of a computer screen and the memoryscape of just one engineer.