Film / Paycheck

Michael Jennings has a great job. He's a reverse engineer, paid large sums of money to figure out how rival technology works and improve on it. In exchange for his massive paychecks, he must have his recent memory wiped after each job to prevent any information leaks. Life is good.

His latest project at Allcom was supposed to be his biggest yet, lasting three years(which were wiped upon completion) but earning him enough money to finally retire.... but something has gone wrong. His 8-figure payment has been forfeited in favour of a manila envelope full of random odds and ends. The FBI wants to talk to him about his apparent involvement in the death of another engineer. A lot of people are trying to kill him. Now Jennings finds himself in the strange position of having to reverse-engineer his own future... before time runs out.

Paycheck (2003) is a film adaptation of the Philip K Dick short story of the same name, starring Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Paul Giamatti, and Aaron Eckhart, and directed by John Woo.


  • Chekhov's Armoury: A deliberate, in-story invocation of this trope - The envelope that Jennings substituted for his paycheck contains helpful items.
    • A single bullet but no gun. It's fired anyway, of course.
    • The remote-controlled grabbing device in Rachel's lab, along with her thunder, lightning, and wind effects.
  • Chekhov's Skill: In the beginning of the film there is a short scene of Jennings training at the gym, hitting targets with a staff. Guess how he beats up mooks near the ending?
  • Chronoscope: The Time Scope, of course.
  • Condensation Clue: Jennings wrote a note to his girlfriend on her bathroom mirror so she would know he hadn't abandoned her.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Rethrick.
  • Cool Bike: The BMW R 1150R Rockster utilized in a chase scene. Which, of course, Jennings had bought ahead of time.
  • Death by Adaptation: Rethrick. In the short story Jennings simply blackmails Rethrick into letting him become a partner in running the company, while in the movie Jennings leaves himself a watch timed to tell him to move just in time to get out of the way of a bullet and allowing it to hit Rethrick.
  • Disturbed Doves: Well, it is a John Woo film...
  • The Dragon: John Wolfe.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Car vs. pipe. Point goes to the pipe.
  • Five Second Foreshadowing: The bad guy stands in front of the machine that shows the future, but only sees himself throwing down the controls and trying to escape just as the machine explodes in his face. Horrified, he throws down the controls and tries to escape just as the machine explodes in his face.
  • Framed Clue: The extra stamp on the envelope.
  • Gambit Roulette: Jennings uses a Memory Gambit, prophecies and a time portal in his plan to outsmart his opponents.
  • "Good Luck" Gesture: You can see that Jennings has his fingers crossed when he raises his head after almost being run over by a subway train.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Literally. It involves a submicronic laser being used on individual memory-neurons in Jennings' brain and happens to him after every job to prevent data leaks.
  • Magical Security Cam: The memory reader, which somehow works in third-person.
  • Memory Gambit: Knowing his memory would be wiped, Jennings left clues to lead himself to the info or escape route he needed.
  • Mexican Standoff: Happens 3 different times in the film!
  • Mood Whiplash: An assassin attempts to take a shot at Jennings from behind his newspaper disguise while in a subway station. Then, suddenly, a small kid with a toy revolver approaches the assassin in disguise, and "shoots" him (saying something along the lines of "Bang! Bang! You're dead!"). The assassin ignores him and takes out his long badass silenced pistol (BFG) to take aim at Jennings. The kid only seems annoyed.
  • Note to Self: Made difficult as the only things Jennings could sneak out were innocuous items.
  • Ontological Mystery: Jennings' last job and what happened on it kicks off the bulk of the plot, especially since due to the memory-erasure procedure he doesn't know why anyone would kill him over it or why he's been accused of killing someone.
  • Plot Tailored to the Party: As a reverse engineer, Jennings is uniquely suited to analyze the numerous potential bad futures and give himself innocuous-looking doodads to allow himself to survive.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Though the basic idea is more or less the same (Jennings completes a job and has his memory wiped, finds himself in trouble with the law with the only clues being a series of seemingly useless items he left for himself as the result of seeing his own future), the movie is a lot more elaborate than the short story. Some of the key plot elements are seen earlier in the movie, but the ending is completely different in both versions.
  • Quest for Identity: Jennings is trying to find out what happened on his last job.
  • Retroactive Preparation: A variant. Jennings doesn't have a time machine, but he did have access to the time portal.
  • Screw Destiny: What the machine would hopefully do, though Jennings's initial use of it indicates it's closer to a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The eventual conclusion seems to be that you can do it, but it's really hard.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The stamps on Jennings' envelope demonstrate this. Images of newspaper articles show that the predictions the machine makes come true but it's because the people they are given to are too quick to jump to conclusions, thereby creating the very catastrophe they were trying to avert. Jennings, an engineer, had both the time and intelligence to logically deconstruct his prophecies and give himself specific tools to avert them.
  • Someday This Will Come in Handy: Inverted. Jennings was working from (temporary) foreknowledge of his own future, and after his memory wipe he has to figure out what is needed where.
  • Spot the Imposter / Trust Password: Maya fails at this by not knowing Michael's favorite baseball team.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: set between 2004-2007, a few years after the film's 2003 release. Deliberately in contrast to Dick's original 1953 short story, which depicted a much more distant (and near-dystopian) future with many more obvious sci-fi elements.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Michael and Rachael sneak into a chemistry lab at a high school to use the microscope to examine a clue. When they're leaving, there are kids all over the hallways. No one seems to notice or care that there are two adults wandering the hall, while school is in session, that no one there knows...
  • Viewer-Friendly Interface: Every computer in this movie.
  • With This Herring: Jennings begins his quest with odds and ends. They come in handy but the trope is still valid.
  • You Will Know What to Do: Pulled off artfully in the movie (he gets twenty of these), but with a bit more flair in the short story.