United States. Directed by Tarsem Singh, 2015. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Ben Kingsley, Victor Garber. 117 minutes.
Self/less stars Ben Kingsley as Damien Hale, a dying New York real estate mogul, who makes a Faustian deal with creepy Randian scientist Albright (Matthew Goode). Albright shares a dream with Steve Martin’s character in The Man with Two Brains, who foresaw “a day when the brains of brilliant men can be kept alive in the bodies of dumb people.” To this end, the scientist arranges to kill Hale’s diseased body but transplant his consciousness into the younger, sexier, more athletic, and less cancer-ridden body of Ryan Reynolds.
Albright assures his client than Hale 2.0 was grown in a lab–which, of course, means that it wasn’t. The new Hale realizes this when he starts having visions of being War II vet with a young wife and sick daughter. On the plus side, it turns out he has access to his body’s former occupant’s élite military training, which will aid him in his quest to find out what the hell is going on, and, not incidentally, tear Albright and his organization a new asshole.
The bad news about Self/less is that it isn’t as thoughtful as I hoped it would be. The good news is that’s really not a problem, as the film has its own particular charms–and anyway, I already have a recent, intelligent “body-swapping to help a disadvantaged daughter” movie under my belt; that would be Advantageous.
Director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall, and of course the music video for “Losing My Religion”) envisions the screenplay, by Spanish writers David and Àlex Pastor as a bit of a take on The Bourne Identity (hunky guy with a vague identity uses fighting skills he doesn’t quite know about to take down a shadowy agency who won’t leave him alone), with a bit of The Guest thrown in for good measure when Hale 2.0 tracks down the family of his former body. None of this is particularly original, admittedly, and the film’s plot development settles into a rote familiarity.
This didn’t surprise me. Singh doesn’t really do substance. This is, after all, the guy who asked audiences to accept Jennifer Lopez as a brilliant child psychologist with a minor in virtual reality mind-melds. What Singh does do is style, and he does style very well. Self/less is a gorgeous film, brilliantly designed and expertly staged action sequences. The car chases, in particular, are things of beauty. I do sincerely hope that the recent trend in coherent film action continues and overtakes the “if I shake the camera hard enough no one will notice that I never bothered to learn my craft” methods practiced by Michael Bay’s acolytes.
It helps that the filmmakers have assembled a strong cast well suited for the material. Kingsley gets Damien 1.0’s smug cockiness just right, even if he does struggle with an overwrought Brooklyn accent. Reynolds will never be anybody’s idea of a great actor, but he does provide a continuity of character with Kingsley, and every so often he shows hints of range one wouldn’t ordinarily expect. Goode understands he’s playing a Bond villain and adjusts his performance accordingly. The emotional heart of the film comes in two supporting performances: the great Victor Garber (Alias) as Hale 1.0’s longtime business partner and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as Hale’s estranged environmentalist daughter.
Self/less is action movie comfort food. True, it lacks real narrative ambition and doesn’t follow up on its more intriguing science-fiction premises, jettisoning them in favor of more overt and predictable emotional manipulation. But sometimes a taste of the familiar is exactly what you need.