A brand new you that just might be the old someone else is the quandary at the center of “Self/less,” an initially intriguing parable about man’s lust for immortality that quickly devolves into a substandard shoot-’em-up designed to rebrand star Ryan Reynolds as a brawny action hero in the Jason Statham mold. But even the resourceful, likable Reynolds is at a loss to elevate this rather dreary piece of would-be escapism, which calls out for the wry, pulpy touch of a John Carpenter (or his acolyte David Twohy) and instead gets the strained self-seriousness of director Tarsem Singh. July 10 release from Universal/Focus’ relaunched genre label Gramercy Pictures will have its work cut out for it against the big guns of summer.
Written by Spanish brothers Alex and David Pastor (whose little-seen 2009 “Carriers” was one of the better zombie/virus thrillers of recent vintage), “Self/less” cribs freely from just about every mind/body/reality swap movie of the past 50 years, with a particular (and uncredited) debt owed to director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter Lewis John Carlino’s 1966 “Seconds,” in which a wealthy but unhappy middle-aged banker (played by actor John Randolph) signs up for a very high-tech facelift that transforms him into the strapping Rock Hudson.
Here, it’s a dying, Scrooge-like real-estate magnate, Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley, doing a mile-wide Noo Yawk accent), who plunks down $250 million for the services offered by the mysterious Phoenix Biogenic corporation, where the coolly composed CEO (Matthew Goode) promises his clients not just a few nips and tucks, but an entirely new, healthy, younger human body grown organically in the lab. (The process goes by the reptilian name of “shedding.”) In one end of a spinning, whirring, MRI-like machine goes Damian’s cancer-ridden corpse and out the other comes Reynolds — not exactly the Rock Hudson of his day, perhaps, but certainly nothing to contact the refunds department about.
As with Frankenheimer’s protagonist, the “old” Damian’s death is convincingly staged, while the “new” Damian (rechristened Edward) is shipped off to New Orleans for some post-op R&R and sternly advised to stay away from anyone and anything having to do with his former life. That includes Damian’s estranged daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery), an “urban change” advocate who’s about as broadly drawn as Kingsley’s accent. (“This isn’t work. This is a bunch of children throwing a tantrum,” he scolds her upon visiting her dilapidated cold-water office, which looks the way hippie communes did in out-of-touch Hollywood movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s.) But at first, such loose ends are the furthest thing from Damian/Edward’s mind, as he cuts loose and parties like it’s 1959 — save for the occasional glitches that short-circuit his brain like interference on an over-the-air television set (or, more precisely, someone else’s memories competing for attention with his own).
Well, suffice it to say that “Edward” has a few more miles on him than advertised, as well as some special skills (as in Special Forces) that come in handy once Damian starts asking too many questions and finds himself on the run from a vast Phoenix Biogenic goon squad led by the hard-to-kill Anton (Derek Luke, playing a version of “The Matrix’s” endlessly regenerative Agent Smith). At which point, “Self/less” goes through its own “shedding” process, dropping its high-concept sci-fi facade for the rhythms of a more conventional pursuit thriller, before transforming yet again into a mawkish father-daughter bonding drama that finds Damian serving as protector of a beautiful single mom (Natalie Martinez) and her precocious daughter (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), who have suffered their own betrayals at the hands of the Phoenix corporation. (Together, they all dream of escaping to one of those generic tropical paradises common to travel-agency window displays.)
For a while, as “Self/less” unfurls all of its knotty complications, the movie gives off a junkily entertaining vibe, like the A-picture knockoffs that used to roll down the assembly line of shlock impresarios Roger Corman and Menahem Golan. But the more the narrative straightens out into a series of shootouts, punch-outs and car chases, the more monotonous it becomes (especially at 116 minutes). Unlike “Seconds,” Singh’s movie isn’t much interested in exploring the psychological consequences of becoming a “new” person, and it lacks the energy and humor that might have transformed it into a rollicking, “Total Recall”-style caper.
The miscast Reynolds holds his own in the fight scenes, but seems far too decent to have ever been the cold-blooded capitalist Kingsley plays in the film’s early scenes — a man who, even with his dying breaths, delights in publicly humiliating an ambitious young competitor. Yet the script turns on the notion that Damian is appalled to learn of the lengths to which his latter-day Dr. Frankenstein will go to keep his own business thriving. (Likewise, one would think that, at the prices he’s charging, Goode’s CEO could find a more secure base for his nefarious operations than a Mardi Gras float warehouse.)
Minus the extravagant, Ken Russell-ish flourishes of his earlier “The Cell” and “The Fall,” Singh feels very much like a director-for-hire here, shooting (with d.p. Brendan Galvin) in the slick but nondescript visual language of luxury-brand advertising. (The end credits offer a special thanks to Donald Trump, for allowing several scenes to be filmed inside Trump Tower.) Which is somehow exactly the right look for a movie that vaunts “the things that really matter in life” but doesn’t have a clue as to what those things actually are.