John Frankenheimer made “Seconds” back in 1966, so this Tarsem Singh movie should really be called “Thirds,” since it’s close to being a misguided clone of that film. And it follows the usual pattern, at least in the cinematic realm, of being inferior to its predecessor.
In Frankenheimer’s picture, John Randolph played an older gent, dissatisfied with his life, who was remolded by a secretive firm called The Company into a younger, more virile “new man” through surgery and physical training, and then given a new identity (as an artist played by Rock Hudson). In “Self/less,” Ben Kingsley is Damian Hale, a real estate tycoon whose literally gold-encrusted penthouse can’t save him from the ravages of terminal cancer, or win him reconciliation with his estranged daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery), who heads up a neighborhood advocacy non-profit. He receives an anonymous suggestion that he contact Phoenix Biogenics, a shadowy outfit headed by Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), who practices a procedure called “shedding.” Through it a person with enough dough can fake his death and have his consciousness implanted into an entirely new, young body while his old, used-up one is jettisoned. Since Hale is none too hearty, he jumps at the chance.
After an elaborate ruse involving his best friend and business partner Martin O’Neil (Victor Garber) as an unwitting witness, Hale is declared dead. But he’s soon reborn as Edward Hitchins (Ryan Reynolds), a strapping thirty-something guy. It takes Edward considerable time to gain full strength—a course of physical rehab is necessary—but after a while Albright declares him ready to go out into the world. The firm sets him up in a posh New Orleans house, and on the local basketball court he meets Anton (Derek Luke), whom becomes his new pal. There’s only one hitch: he begins having visions involving a woman, a child and a water tower, as well as some desert-set military activity. Albright assures him they’re just dreams or hallucinations stirred up by his new brain’s incorporation of Hale’s memories, and he prescribes pills to suppress them. But Edward’s suspicions are stirred, just as those of the title character played by Michael Sarrazin were by similar flashbacks in J. Lee Thompson’s “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud” (1975).
And rightfully so, of course. A little Googling takes Edward to Missouri, where near that water tower, which comes up easily on his Internet search, he finds a remote house that contains, among other things, a photo of him—the new him, that is—with the woman and young girl of his visions. You know what that means: Damian/Edward’s current corporeal digs aren’t the spanking new, genetically-engineered model Albright had promised, but a recycled one. No sooner does he realize that than Anton show up with some heavily-armed thugs to drag Edward back to his re-maker. And despite his initial injunction that “the doc wants him alive,” Anton is soon ordering his men to incinerate the recalcitrant Hitchins with shouts of “light the house up!” At this point “Self/less” becomes an action-oriented chase movie of little distinction.
That’s too bad, because the premise behind the script by Alex and David Pastor raises some interesting issues. One could dismiss it as nothing more than a Frankenstein updating, and to a certain extent it is; but the notion of full-body transplants, which is what the story is essentially about, is morally an intriguing one at a time when the theft or sale of body parts seems to be a thriving underground business. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t make much of the ethical or legal ramifications the plot raises; it’s content to exploit outrage over the very idea as the basis for a succession of fistfights and shoot-’em-ups.
Singh stage-manages those well enough, but the movie lacks the visual extravagance of his previous pictures; his heart doesn’t seem to be in it—perhaps somebody like John Woo could have brought some panache to the proceedings. Nor does Reynolds seem to be doing much beyond going through the motions of playing an action hero. It’s laudable, one supposes, that he’s trying to move beyond his lightweight comic roots, not only with the catastrophic “Green Lantern” but more recently in pictures as varied as Atom Egoyan’s “The Captive” and Simon Curtis’ “Woman in Gold.” But as was the case in “Safe House,” he seems out of his element in full-throttle action mode. Kingsley does his barking routine (with an outlandish New York accent) but little more, and Garber his usual shtick (casting directors should probably refrain from choosing him again to play roles as softies who prove to be unreliable); Martinez, meanwhile, is fairly nondescript. The best work comes from Goode, who make an appropriately smooth villain in the vein of James Mason (think “North by Northwest”) and Luke, who gives his scenes some kick despite their absurdity. The technical credits are fine—Brendan Galvin’s cinematography is thoroughly pro—but like so much of the picture basically pro-forma.
“Self/less” could have been a thoughtful, provocative, cerebral thriller—as “Seconds,” for all its problems, was. But instead it chooses to become an action movie so dumb that it might be titled “Sense/less.”