I think this sci-fi action movie directed by John Woo (who also made Red Cliff) deserves a better reputation than it has. I like it better than all the other movies that were made from Philip K. Dick stories that I’ve seen so far (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Impostor), except for maybe The Adjustment Bureau. The premise is memorably fascinating (thanks, Phil) and the rest of the movie holds up reasonably well if you’re not expecting a cinematic masterpiece. (Yes, yes, you love Blade Runner. Fine. But I don’t, and at any rate Blade Runner isn’t fun, it’s grim.)
In Paycheck, Michael Jennings is a smart but lonely guy who gets paid to reverse-engineer (and improve) high-tech products. After each short-term contract job is completed, his memory is wiped of the work he did. What if, during the longest, highest-paid stint of his career, he learned that his boss had some kind of terrible plan? He’d still have to have his memory erased at the end of the job, but he’d need a way to tell himself how to escape the trap he was in while preventing his boss from carrying out the plan…
How does he escape, what is the plan, and how does he stop his boss? Watch the movie!
Or see below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My Beat Sheet for Paycheck
Smiling 3D woman on a beach on a computer screen.
Set-up / Theme Stated
Mike’s professional life is a total blank; all he remembers are the vacations between contracts. He says that’s all right with him when chatting with Shorty, the awkward guy who erases his memories, but there’s something missing in his life… a woman who’s good for more than just a casual, forgettable fling. At a party, he flirts briefly and unsuccessfully with Rachel, who has a PhD in biology and expects real conversation. She berates him for giving up easily because she believes in second chances.
Mike’s friend, who has a crystal ball in his library, offers him a longer-than-usual job at his company, Allcom, in exchange for stock options that will almost certainly make him a millionaire. He’ll never have to work another day in his life. (Apparently that doesn’t sound ominous to Mike.)
Motivated by the payout, and possibly boredom, Mike takes the offer despite his friend Shorty’s doubts about whether three years of memories can—or should—be erased. At the research campus where he will be living, he reluctantly hands over an envelope full of personal items. Then he meets Rachel again. She throws a wind storm at him in her botany lab, but then uses a robot arm to give him a flower. He feels sad that even if they get together, his memory of her will be erased.
Break into Two
Mike proceeds inside where the boss has his henchman inject him with a chemical marker that will show where the memory erasure should begin.
Promise of the Premise
Mike is in the same office where he got the injection, but now he’s done with his work. He goes home, looks up the company’s share price, and happily goes to the bank to claim his personal items and the eponymous paycheck. The bank gives him neither! He has forfeited his money and sent himself a set of personal belongings he does not recognize or want. Why?
He goes home empty-handed and then gets tased and arrested by the FBI, who have found his name on some patents based on work done by a man who is now dead from a suspicious fall from a high window. The FBI question him about the work he did and the envelope of items, then try to read his memory, but glean little.
Then, the envelope of items starts to work its magic.
One of the FBI agents borrows a cigarette from his pack. Smoking it causes the building to go into emergency mode. The room fills with some kind of fire-retardant, the lights go out, and the chair Mike is strapped into releases him. He snatches “his” sunglasses from the envelope and find they enable him to see better than the FBI agents in the gloom. He sweeps up the other items and runs from the building.
He gets chased to a bus station, where he uses a bus ticket to evade capture. On the bus, he starts to examine the items. A young hoodlum who notices him holding what looks like a diamond ring falls over him and steals it. Mike exits the bus to pursue him, but decides to go back to the nearby bank instead. The bank gives him a receipt for 20 personal items, reiterating that he gave up his Allcom stock.
Mike gets a lousy hotel room and looks at the items. He sets up a meeting with Shorty where he explains that the items must all be significant somehow. They see that the fortune-cookie fortune from the envelope bears the winning lotto numbers being announced on TV. Assassins attack, and Mike gives Shorty a janitor’s key that helps them escape in different directions.
Mike ducks into a subway tunnel where he fends off an attacker using the hairspray and lighter. After a confrontation with the main henchman, he almost gets run over by a train in a scene that recalls the part of The Matrix where Agent Smith says “that is the sound of inevitability”, but manages to use a paperclip to program the train to brake just in time.
The FBI realizes that the secret project Mike was working on was a machine that can see the future using a laser and a lens. In a dream, Mike remembers foreseeing his own death.
B Story / Bad Guys Close In
Back in the lousy hotel nursing injuries, Mike notices that the paint is smearing off the matchbook, and calls the cafe the matches came from. Apparently, he made a reservation for two the next day. Moreover, before having his memory wiped, Mike left instructions for Rachel to meet him at the cafe.
Unfortunately, the bad guys find Mike’s message written on Rachel’s mirror and send an imposter to the cafe. The imposter nearly convinces him to give up the Allcom badge from his envelope, but when she kisses him, Mike remembers that the real Rachel has blue eyes, not green ones. He asks the imposter which baseball team is his favorite. Just as she says “Who cares?”, the real Rachel shows up, bludgeons the imposter with her purse, and says “That would be the Red Sox”. A volley of shots is fired, but the two grab the envelope and the pass and escape the cafe.
They discover that one of the items is the key to a BMW, but it’s not a car, it’s a motorcycle. Cue the car chase! The FBI and the Allcom baddies are after them, but they escape.
Now they’re in a different crappy hotel, and Rachel has had a shower. She’s sad that Mike can’t remember their relationship; she’s brought photos along to try to remind him. It doesn’t work. They look at the items that remain, and using the lens Mike sees something in the postage stamp that warrants a closer look.
All Is Lost
Mike and Rachel go into a high school to use a microscope to examine the extra Einstein postage stamp. On Einstein’s eyeball, Mike has printed images of future newspaper headlines. The papers talk about Allcom’s future-seeing invention, an invention which sparks a nuclear war, because (as in Tomorrowland) people have a habit of acting out negative prophecies. Luckily, Mike disabled the machine before leaving, so it doesn’t work now, but there’s a guy trying to fix it who will probably succeed.
Break into Three
Mike and Rachel decide to use the Allcom pass to dive into the belly of the beast.
They use ball bearings from the envelope to set off the metal-detector alarms at the front door as a distraction.
Because the bad guys want Mike to fix the machine, they let him into the machine room. Rachel points out the trap and wants to bust the door mechanism so that no one can come in. Instead, mike uses the hex wrench to open the door’s control panel and inserts a large coin to confuse it so it won’t open. He figures out which circuit board to repair using the crossword puzzle.
Mike rigs the machine to explode by placing the bullet from the envelope where it will get hit by the piston on some kind of volatile cooling apparatus. Then he uses the machine and sees the future. The machine predicts that he will die on the catwalk in the botany lab.
Neither Rachel nor Mike wants Mike to die, so they avoid the catwalks. They’ve nearly escaped together, but Mike locks Rachel out and goes back to confront the boss and his henchmen.
The big fight scene in the botany lab involves Mike being dragged up onto the catwalk. Also, Rachel gets captured. They are both held at gunpoint, but they don’t give up because now they both believe in second chances. The last of Mike’s envelope of items kicks in. His watch beeps “GO” and he and Rachel lunge so that the FBI sniper shoots the Allcom boss. The machine explodes. They escape and the bad guys don’t. Afterwards, the head FBI guy knows they lived, but pretends they didn’t.
Rachel, along with Shorty and Mike, is in a greenhouse running a plant nursery, because apparently that’s what Hollywood thinks you do when you have a PhD in biology. In the bottom of the cage where Mike and Rachel keep their beloved parrots, Mike finds a winning lottery ticket. He not only gets the girl, he gets his paycheck after all.
Too bad nobody else liked Paycheck
They have a point: the film is inoffensive rather than innovative. Still. Inoffensive is better than offensive.