Sharpshooter assassin Henry Brogan is 51 years old. Time to call it quits, he figures, popping the 72nd kill of his career from what looks to be at least a mile away. Only Brogan can make a shot like that. But his conscience is starting to catch up with him, and now he’s going to retire, build birdhouses back home in Georgia, or whatever movie characters plan to do in their pension years. Seems like a waste of a very specific talent, but don’t worry. Before Brogan can attend his first Bingo night, the agency that employed him sends the highest-concept killer imaginable to wipe him out: Junior, a quarter-century-younger clone of Brogan.
In theory, “Gemini Man” offers quite the novelty, a chance to witness an older A-list star (Will Smith) face off against a deadly computer-generated version of himself (who looks like the zombie double for Smith, circa “Bad Boys,” minus his signature “Aw hell, naw” charisma). In practice, it’s been a nearly impossible project to get made, passing through the hands of countless actors and falling through multiple times because the technology wasn’t there yet. At least, that’s been the excuse, although judging by the finished product, it was the script that never lived up to the promise of its premise.
After a 22-year incubation period — enough time that, had the filmmakers known how long it would take, they could have shot the clone scenes in 1997 and then cast the same actor to play the older character two decades later — “Gemini Man” is a case in which an awful lot of effort has gone into making an awfully lazy action movie. Once considered one of his generation’s great humanists, director Ang Lee has grown distracted of late by the nuts and bolts, focusing much of his attention on higher frame rates (as seen in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”), stereoscopic 3D (“Life of Pi”) and entirely CG characters. That tendency has always been there for Lee, as evidenced by the dreamy, gravity-defying fight scenes of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the experimental comic book montage of 2003’s “Hulk.” As a director, he’s constantly challenging himself. But he’s usually a far better judge of material, just as producer Jerry Bruckheimer tends to work with more pyrotechnic helmers (he originally intended for Tony Scott to steer this one).
As credited to screenwriters David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, the basic concept here doesn’t even make sense. Twenty-five years ago, unbeknownst to Brogan, a privatized paramilitary profiteer, Clay Verris (Clive Owen), extracted a sample of the top assassin’s DNA and cloned him, raising the test-tube replica as his own son. Junior was to be the prototype for a new breed of super-soldier, although bizarrely (if the film’s own flimsy plot is to be believed), Verris never put the clone into mass production. Instead, he trained this lone replica to be even more ruthless than Brogan, somehow keeping the project top-secret for 25 years (despite the company’s dead-giveaway “Gemini” moniker), until such time that he could order the young knockoff to hunt down and rub out the original. Surely there’s something Freudian in that, although the movie remains fairly superficial when it comes to psychology.
A decade back, critics slammed James Cameron’s visionary “Avatar” for its screenplay shortcomings, although I felt at the time that the technology (photoreal 10-foot blue-skinned alien characters, animated via performance capture and rendered in 3D) was so revolutionary that it actually worked to the film’s benefit that Cameron was basically retelling “Dances With Wolves” in space. With “Gemini Man,” Lee sets out to be every bit as radical, but his innovations overwhelm the experience.
For example, there’s the frame rate issue, which eliminates the flicker we subconsciously associate with shot-on-film films (a good thing) and replaces it with the ultra-crisp vaguely underwater sway of hi-def motion-smoothing TV sets. The result is a kind of ersatz hyper-reality where our brains feel obliged to absorb more information than they typically would from every shot, to the extent that we start to pick up on the presence of fake-looking props, badly traced greenscreen halos and out-of-sync extras, all of which shift the attention away from Brogan’s run — but not enough to overlook the litany of holes in the movie’s Swiss-cheesy plot. Each scene seems to present half a dozen freshly frustrating leaps of logic and dum-dum lines like “It’s possible: All you really need is a DNA sample and a surrogate mother” hardly suffice to sell the science.
On paper, Verris’ plan to use Junior to bump off Brogan sets up the tantalizing prospect of watching Will Smith fight himself — and sure enough, that makes for two great set-pieces, one a cross-Cartagena motorcycle chase composed of striking long takes and impressive in-camera choreography, the other a clumsier brute-strength battle in the underlit catacombs of Budapest. But unlike the Captain America battle in last spring’s “Avengers: Endgame” (in which old Glamour Pants jumped back in time and wound up squaring off against a more idealistic version of himself), these two warriors are not in fact the same person.
To assume that Junior can anticipate Brogan’s every move simply because they have the same genes is to blatantly reject the notion that upbringing plays any role in the individuals we become — and is inconsistent with the idea that Verris deploys him without revealing who his target even is. “Gemini Man” returns multiple times to the idea that Brogan has reached a point where he can hardly look at himself in the mirror, which presumably makes it tough to confront this youthful reminder of the never-questioning killer he used to be.
Evidently, the character’s late-career maturity is more accurately reflected by his relationship with fellow Defense Intelligence Agency operative Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who represents the kind of romantic prospects Brogan has always denied himself — and which he now wishes for his evil clone to experience. At 51, Smith doesn’t seem that old, which leaves one wondering how the dynamic might have been different had Harrison Ford or Sean Connery taken the part, playing a version of the character who might die nobly while somehow liberating his brainwashed doppelgänger.
As for Junior, well, Smith’s virtual clone comes off as precisely that at first: a second-rate digital facsimile. Considering how convincing other 100% CG characters have been over the past decade — from Andy Serkis’ menagerie of fantastical alter egos to Marvel’s hyper-expressive Ultron to the big-eyed android Alita earlier this year — it’s jarring at first to accept this faux prince of Bel-Air as a substitute for the real deal.
Maybe it’s the difference between believing a not-quite-humanoid character and one meant to represent a real-life personality whose face we know so well, although the uncanny valley wasn’t such an obstacle for Benjamin Button, and it wasn’t nearly so difficult to embrace Smith as the blue-skinned Genie in Disney’s live-action “Aladdin.” Here, there’s something off about his mouth, a slight lag to the way his lips move, like watching a hologram or a video game character. And yet, just as Junior gets his chance to redeem himself in the good guys’ eyes, so too does he win us over, incrementally, in a series of dramatic scenes that call for the kind of finely calibrated forehead-creasing, eye-narrowing nuance that’s missing early on. No doubt, this CG cloning technology will continue to evolve. But as “Gemini Man” makes clear, there’s only one Will Smith. Accept no substitutes.
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