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The Adam Project Review: Cross-Time Team-Up

I feel like we still somewhat underestimate Ryan Reynolds, not as a handsome famous person necessarily, but as an actual movie star capable of delivering real charm and dynamism in the roles he plays. He's an actor whose abilities are downplayed because, whether we're talking about "Van Wilder" or "Deadpool," he's become famous as the Guy Who Talks A Lot or the Guy Who Comments On the Action While It's Happening, which lends to the idea that he gets by on being good-looking and funny.

But there's a mental quickness that comes with the kind of energy Reynolds brings to a role, whether we're talking about "Deadpool" or "Free Guy," one that's hard for other actors to convincingly imitate because there is a genuine emotional reservoir bubbling beneath that breezy exterior. He is a consummate blockbuster multi-tasker, able to deliver physical kineticism and mental dexterity in the same shot while also imbuing his characters with a certain charm and depth that carries him through even more lackluster scripts. It doesn't land for everyone, but when you get it, you see the gift he has for elevating the material, even when the material is relatively rote action movie fare.

All of which brings us to "The Adam Project," the sci-fi adventure that reunites Reynolds with "Free Guy" director Shawn Levy for a time-hopping tale in which Reynolds gets to spend much of the runtime acting across from a younger version of himself. The project's been developing for roughly a decade, but feels firmly rooted in playing to Reynolds' strengths at this point, pushing the quips and the fight scene commentary to their absolute limits in ways that don't always work. What does work, though, is Reynolds' ability to put a movie on his shoulders and find the emotional core beyond the jokes, and that makes this Netflix blockbuster a film that works in spite of certain all-too-familiar elements.

Adam, meet Adam

Adam Reed (Reynolds) is a hotshot fighter pilot from a future in which time travel is not only real, but a massively corruptive force in human society. Things are so bad that some pilots with access to the technology are convinced time travel needs to be eradicated entirely, which can of course only be done by journeying into the past and preventing it from being invented back in 2018. Of course, when Adam tries that, he accidentally winds up in 2022 instead, where a younger version of himself (Walker Scobell) is still reeling from the death of his father (Mark Ruffalo), who just so happens to be the inventor of time travel.

The hook here, of course, is that by journeying back to his past, Adam has to contend with His Past in a big way, including the father he feels left him behind, the mother (Jennifer Garner) he struggled to connect to, and the wife (Zoe Saldana) who went missing on a similar mission. Then, of course, there are the dark forces (led by an underutilized Catherine Keener) who want to keep time travel right where it is, who come for Adam guns blazing, futuristic suits of armor and all.

There's a lot of fertile ground to explore here, and much of it hinges on the chemistry between Reynolds and Scobell as they try to build a genuine connection between two versions of the same character, both of whom talk in an unmistakably Reynoldsian dialect. If the whole talk-through-the-pain genre of action-comedy cinema in general, and Reynolds' particular twist on it in particular, doesn't sit well with you, I'm sorry to say "The Adam Project" might be a bit of a chore for you. If you're on board with what Reynolds is putting down, though, it's a particularly potent showcase of his specific gifts as both an actor and an action star. Yes, the banter picks up from the very first scene and never stops, but there are also some very compelling bits when he manages to pivot on an emotional dime to navigate grief, resentment, and frustration with his own past in the past of just a few seconds. We underestimate him too often because he hides so much of that gift behind quips and a million-dollar smile, but Reynolds actually can turn some genuine movie star power on when he's got the right runway to build to it, and it's that power that becomes the greatest asset of "The Adam Project."

A mixed bag of throwbacks

Though it roots its action in the present day, "The Adam Project" obviously owes a great deal to sci-fi family films of years past, evoking everything from "Star Wars" to "Back to the Future" in an often proudly self-referential way that makes the film breezy and easy to latch onto for casual viewers and longtime genre fans. The problem, though, is that the film's jumping off points often don't lead into deeper territory. There are some really interesting, even "Terminator"-esque ideas about the nature of time travel and the idea of saving the future, but they're lost in the shuffle of somewhat repetitive fight scenes and the film's endless use of banter as a crutch to keep things feeling brisk. There are also some very interesting ideas about the notion of legacy, what it means to be the custodian of a big idea, and what happens when that custodianship is cut short, but those elements of the film end up buried behind chase scenes and a final fight that feels less impressive than the movie hopes it is.

In other words, the film is a mixed bag that feels like it hopes you don't notice because of all the familiar elements flying in your face. And those elements do fly. Levy directs the film with a direct, slick confidence that makes even the more predictable phases of the plot zip by, and while the visual effects aren't always the most convincing and the fight choreography isn't always the most jaw-dropping, there's a sense of showmanship that carries things through.

Where the film really works, though, is when it's focusing on the Reed family and how their pasts and futures converge to form a narrative that, in some ways, is more informed by the passage of time than it is by objective truth. At its core, when it hits hardest, "The Adam Project" is a movie about second chances wrapped in a crispy, shiny candy coating. That's what sticks with you when the credits roll, even if the film sometimes drops the thread along the way.

"The Adam Project" arrives March 11 on Netflix.