The elaborately convoluted, soul-swapping thriller "Self/less" squanders its intriguing premise with a loud and labored beat-the-bad-guys trajectory.
Directed by Tarsem Singh ("The Cell") from a dizzying script by Alex Pastor and David Pastor, the result is a depressingly slick and empty house of cards that collapses under the weight of its muddled intentions.
Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley, plying a ridiculous New York accent) is a steely, rich industrialist in his late 60s who's dying of cancer. When he learns about a covert process called "shedding," in which a sick person's consciousness can be transferred into a healthy new body, Hale plunks down a fortune, endures a publicly staged death and undergoes the life-altering operation. (The procedure is all whirring MRI-like tubes and weird mesh face masks that, like everything else here, defies scrutiny.)
When Damian wakes up, he's now "occupying" the body of a hunky 35-year-old dubbed Edward (Ryan Reynolds), who's supposedly some pre-fabricated fellow birthed in a laboratory. However, as shedding mastermind Albright (Matthew Goode) will eventually tell Damian/Edward, "Every medical advance has a cost." And he's not just talking financially.
Following a period of rehab in Albright's New Orleans facility and an invigorating period of youthful hedonism, Damian/Edward realizes he's in an actual human body: a Missouri Army veteran named Mark, who's been presumed dead by his wife, Madeline (Natalie Martinez), and their young daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen).
If this already sounds confusing, it's nothing compared with the mayhem that ensues once the truth-seeking Damian/Edward lands in Missouri and finds himself the immediate target of Albright and a goon squad of armed loyalists, including regenerated tough guy Anton (Derek Luke). It's all in the service of protecting the alleged secrets of Albright's transformative, seemingly all-powerful corporation.
As Damian/Edward attempts to stay alive and protect Madeline and Anna using his newly inherited military skills, he's ensnared in berserk shootouts and firefights, spectacular car crashes and such a vortex of mind-melting confusion (sometimes literally), double crosses and physiological mumbo-jumbo that the plot devolves into a hopeless case of anything goes.
Story strands involving the original Damian's estranged do-gooder daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery), and his old friend and business partner, Martin (Victor Garber), attempt to add emotion to the proceedings but can feel tacked on.
Singh certainly knows his way around a sleek visual, and Reynolds proves a plausible action hero. But the script largely eschews any cleverness for a kind of psychosocial ponderousness that milks the film of its fun factor.
In the end, the movie best serves as an object lesson in the pitfalls of more-is-less Hollywood filmmaking.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence, sexuality, language
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: In general release