In Self/Less, Ben Kingsley plays a dying, sharklike real-estate tycoon who has his identity transplanted into that of a younger body, played by Ryan Reynolds. We’re told that the new body has been grown in a lab — that it is essentially a blank slate. Of course, that turns out not to be the case, but for a few moments there I allowed myself to savor the possibility that Tarsem Singh’s new film had sneaked in a sick, subtle dig at Reynolds’s bland, lifeless persona. At any rate, a movie that starts out with Ben Kingsley and winds up with Ryan Reynolds has its work cut out for it.
That body — which for a while makes the once-debilitated Damian Hale (the aforementioned millionaire) physically fit and irresistible to women — turns out to have once belonged to a former soldier, now presumed dead, whose mind has been wiped clean. So Damian has effectively invaded this other man’s corporeal being. Soon enough, he starts seeing visions, dreams — images of a family and a home in the heartland. In other words, there’s somebody else here inside this head. And that somebody, we learn, has a wife and a daughter who are unaware of what happened to him. As Damian starts to investigate further, the mysterious organization that arranged for his transplant — a process called “shedding” — starts to become proactive in trying to stop him. Explosions and gunfire ensue. To quote an old Buddhist proverb: The body is just a vessel, but don’t steal another man’s car, dipshit.
Self/Less at times bears a striking resemblance to John Frankenheimer’s 1966 masterpiece Seconds, in which a man went through a similar procedure and woke up as Rock Hudson, and while a part of me wants to condemn the film for daring to ape a classic, in truth, Self/Less’s main problem is that it’s not enough like Seconds. It promises us a psychological thriller about identity and the self. Damian learns that if he stops taking his meds, eventually he will fade away and this other man will come back. That’s a haunting conundrum: You have invaded another person’s very being, with the help of some rather evil people. What do you do with your self? Do you willingly fade away, so the other man (and his family) can have his life back?
Unfortunately, Self/Less isn’t interested in exploring that question. Because it eventually devolves into a series of action scenes and breakneck escapes and chases, each lamer than the last. Even director Singh, once the confident stylist behind movies like The Cell and The Fall, seems to be conceding territory here: His filmmaking is mostly clean, but gone is his fascination with motion, his willingness to let dumb action sequences slip into near-abstraction and become something else. No, this time, they remain dumb action sequences. Eventually, you start to wonder if the movie forgot to take its own pills: What starts out as an interesting exploration of identity soon gives way to the uninspired, generic action flick we had feared it always was. One in which Ryan Reynolds keeps making you wish he were Ben Kingsley.