In the near future, Michael Jennings (Affleck) is a reverse engineer; he analyzes his clients' competitors' technology and recreates it, often adding improvements beyond the original specifications. To protect his clients' intellectual property and himself, Jennings, with the aid of his friend Shorty (Giamatti), undertakes a memory wipe to remove knowledge of his engineering.
Jennings is approached by his old college roommate, James Rethrick (Eckhart), the CEO of the successful Seattle technology company Allcom. Rethrick proposes a lengthy three-year reverse engineering job to Jennings, requiring him to live on Allcom's secured campus until its conclusion but rewarding him handsomely with company stock. Jennings agrees and, after arranging for his long-term absence, arrives at Allcom, turns in his personal possessions, and is given a brief tour of the facility where he meets and flirts with botanist Dr. Rachel Porter (Thurman). He is injected with a long-term memory marker for the post-job memory wipe.
Three years later, at the conclusion of his memory wipe, Jennings is sitting in Rethrick's office, being thanked for a successful job. On returning home, Jennings finds that, although his Allcom shares would have been worth around $92 million, he had signed them away near the end of his tenure. Furthermore, he finds that his personal possessions have been replaced with an envelope containing a random assortment of everyday items. Soon after, the FBI captures him; and Agent Dodge (Morton) accuses him of filing patent applications based on classified designs they suspect Rethrick purchased from physicist William Dekker, who was subsequently murdered. Jennings is able to escape from custody, finding that the items in the envelope can be used at the right time to evade capture. After warning Shorty of his plight, he finds the items pointing him to a café meeting with Porter. Rethrick, who has been watching Jennings' movements, discovers a message to Porter about this meeting and sends a body double to take her place to try to recover the envelope. The real Porter shows up and helps Jennings escape from both the FBI and Rethrick's men.
They take shelter at a local school, examining the remaining items in the envelope while Porter tries to convince Jennings of the relationship they shared during his tenure at Allcom. One of the stamps holds a microdot that, on enlargement, reveals several pictures of newspaper headlines taken from a machine's display showing Allcom becoming financially successful with a device that can depict future events, but the world reacts to the catastrophic forecasts in ways that fulfill their outcomes, resulting in financial panic, political strife and America launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Jennings realizes he must have built this device based on Dekker's invention and, on realizing the horrors that will come, prepared the envelope, using the forecasts from the machine to allow his future self to return to Allcom and destroy the machine. Furthermore, as Rethrick discovers, Jennings rigged the device to malfunction, preventing Rethrick from anticipating Jennings' actions.
Jennings and Porter return to Allcom and make their way to the machine room undetected, jamming the door behind them. Jennings determines the location of the defective circuit and removes it, subsequently rigging the machine to explode in a few minutes. Jennings uses the machine one last time, seeing a vision of himself being shot by an FBI agent in the catwalks above the machine. Soon, Rethrick's men storm the room and, after a brief shootout, Jennings and Porter escape to the catwalks. Rethrick is waiting there, holding them at gunpoint, the same tableau from the machine. When Jennings' watch, taken from the envelope, beeps, Jennings ducks in time to avoid the FBI Agent's bullet that then kills Rethrick. The machine is destroyed, and Jennings and Porter escape in the chaos. Agent Dodge, surveying the destruction, shows sympathy for Jennings by reporting him killed in the explosion.
In the film's conclusion, Jennings, Porter, and Shorty have opened a greenhouse nursery. Jennings recalls a fortune cookie note from the envelope and discovers one last act he had done with the machine, foreseeing the results of a $90 million lottery and leaving the winning ticket in Porter's birdcage.Ben Affleck as Michael Jennings, reverse engineer
Aaron Eckhart as James Rethrick, billionaire CEO
Colm Feore as John Wolfe, Rethrick's right-hand man
Peter Friedman as Attorney General Brown
Paul Giamatti as Shorty, Jennings's friend
Michael C. Hall as Special Agent Klein
Ivana Miličević as Maya, the double for Rachel
Kathryn Morris as Rita Dune
Joe Morton as Special Agent Dodge
Uma Thurman as Dr. Rachel Porter, biologist and Jennings's lover
The film features several of director Woo's trademarks, including two Mexican standoffs, the appearance of a dove, and a hollow birdcage similar to the opening tea house scene of Hard Boiled.
Paycheck was met with mixed to average critical reception. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 27% based on 154 reviews, with an average rating of 4.7 out of 10. Metacritic holds a score of 43/100 based on reviews from 34 critics.
Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club gave the film a positive review, calling it a "smart thriller" and praising "Woo's wonderful sense of timing and rhythm." Chris Barsanti of Film Threat also praised Paycheck, calling it "one of the more competent and reassuring action movies to come out for quite some time."
Roger Ebert gave the film two stars (out of four), saying that he "enjoyed the movie" but felt that it "exploits [Philip K. Dick's story] for its action and plot potential, but never really develops it." K. J. Doughton of Film Threat called the film "John Woo lite," and a "neutered variation on his earlier, superior works." James Berardinelli gave the film one and a half stars out of four, calling it "a bad film, complete with lackluster acting, brainless writing, and uninspired direction."
Ben Affleck won a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor for his performance in Paycheck and two others - Gigli and Daredevil. After asking why he did not get his trophy, he was presented the Razzie live on Larry King Live a week later, and promptly broke it. The broken Razzie was sold on eBay for enough money to cover the hall rental for the following year's ceremonies. While hosting Saturday Night Live, Ben Affleck joked that he would have walked out of the premiere and asked for his money back until he realized he was in the movie.