The latest from director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Gemini Man is actually based on a screenplay that has been bouncing around Hollywood for more than 20 years. It wasn’t until now that the special effects technology has been in place to handle what the story requires (to put things into context, one iteration of this movie was going to star Clint Eastwood). From a screenplay combining the efforts of writers David Benioff (yes, the Game of Thrones co-creator), Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, Gemini Man stars Will Smith as Henry Brogan, an assassin for hire (usually by the government) who is ready for retirement. But when Henry finds out that his final job involves killing a scientist who poses no threat to the free world or national security, he gets curious and attempts to find out why the target needs to die and who ordered the hit.
As his investigation progresses, he himself becomes the target of Clay Verris (Clive Owen), a man whose organization believes in fully weaponizing all technology. And as a result of some of Verris’ projects, both the scientist and now Henry must be taken out. And shortly, Henry becomes a man on the run, assisted by an agent named Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was hired to survey Henry’s activity during his retirement only to end up helping to save his ass from large numbers of assassins who aren’t quite as good as Henry. All save one, whose name is Junior and just happens to be a clone of Henry who is now about half his age and trained practically from birth to be the perfect killing machine.
With Smith playing both roles (his younger self is actually a full CG face replacement and not simply de-aging current Smith, as is the popular method these days), the results are fairly astonishing from a purely special effects perspective. Not knowing he’s actually a clone, the younger Henry indeed looks like a slightly bulkier Fresh Prince (without the facial hair), and while you may actually get distracted by the overall impact of two Will Smiths, frequently in the same shot and fighting each other, the effects are mostly seamless (I noticed a bit of coloring outside the lines in moments shot in broad daylight).
Henry, Danny and Henry’s longtime agency friend Baron (Benedict Wong) seek refuge in many places all over the world, but Junior and the team always seem to be right on their trail, and since Henry and Junior essentially share a brain, neither can really ever get the upper hand when they do battle because they already know each other’s moves. As much as I enjoyed most of the performances (in a rare misstep, Owen is the weak link in this movie), it’s the unoriginality of the story that killed any early enthusiasm I might have had for the film overall.
Some of the individual action set pieces are pretty great, including an early motorcycle chase between the two Smiths, but when the two men actually get to conversing, the wind is yanked right out of the moment, and even the moral discussion about the ethics of human cloning seem obligatory and don’t really set the world on fire with deep thought. Smith does a credible job playing the duel role—the older character is even-tempered and more cerebral, while the younger one is simply following orders and training while still showing signs of being a youthful hot-head who lets his emotions get the best of him.
Winstead is sporadically allowed to contribute to both the thinking and the fighting portions of the plot, while Owen holes up in his lair for most of the film, wringing his hands and scheming like villains do. He’s at his most sinisterly effective when he’s talking to Junior more like a son than an agent, since in fact, he adopted Junior and raised him; the ways he manipulates the young man are just plain wrong.
Gemini Man is a grand misstep for both Smith and Lee, and even if the special effects turned out exactly as planned, that doesn’t save the movie from coming up short and feeling far too conventional than most science-fiction action works. It has a small handful of standout performances and moments, but they don’t add up. Smith is still built from natural charisma and charm, but the days of that being enough to sustain a two-hour film are behind him, and is probably why he’s been focusing (for the most part) on more dramatic parts lately.
It’s always terrific to see him back in the sci-fi environment. Not a complete wash, but far from flawless.
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