Having Affleck play Michael Jennings, an engineer who will happily have years zapped from his memory if the price is right, is a brilliant bit of casting, and not only because Affleck is one dude who would surely love to have 2003 wiped from his brainpan. Affleck possesses the blank, contented look of someone who's not quite sure where he is or how he wound up with all this money in his pocket; he's happy to have it and smart enough not to ask questions. Uma Thurman is here, too, as the biologist with whom Michael falls in love while working on a secret project for his old pal Jimmy (Aaron Eckhart), who erases Michael's memory once Michael has created a machine that allows its user to see into the future.
Paycheck is a muddled mess, a Hitchcock homage (with obvious nods to The Birds, Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest) by a great filmmaker trying to say a lot with very little. Woo treats the whole film as though it's a video game, with Affleck using an envelope of everyday items -- among them a paper clip, a magnifying glass, a key and a lighter -- to navigate a world populated by people Michael knows but has forgotten. Michael sent the items to himself after he saw the future but before he had his brain cleansed, so he doesn't know what the items are for -- which doesn't stop him from remembering when and how to use them. It works on the page, where we're allowed in on the thought process, but not on-screen, where it all seems like so many lucky guesses.
Woo, like Spielberg, seems to buy Dick's notion that we're all doomed to live in a world where everything we believe in is a fraud or mirage, but his film suffers from the same flaw as Spielberg's -- it's too optimistic. Woo envisions his story as not about suspicion and betrayal but about restored faith and renewed love. The movie goes soft to keep us interested.