Will Smith co-stars opposite himself in Gemini Man, a rare detour into action-thriller terrain from Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi director Ang Lee. Playing an elite hit man drawn into a deadly showdown with his younger clone, this effects-heavy 3D spectacular features both Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital and Hollywood sci-fi legend Douglas Trumbull in its vast creative credits pool. But the disappointing end result feels less than the sum of the talents involved, a weak script and thin high-concept plot only just held together by smart visual wizardry.
Languishing in development since the late 1990s, Gemini Man began life as a Disney property with the late Tony Scott initially set to direct. Various big stars were attached over the years including Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery. Now, after multiple rewrites and technical setbacks, the project finally comes to fruition as a vehicle for Smith to try and reboot his faltering action superstar status.
Double the disappointment.
Was it worth dusting off this clunky pre-millennial screenplay? Frankly, not really. Gemini Man is arguably a significant leap forward for visual effects but a backward step for gripping, sophisticated thrillers. Despite a few deftly handled set-piece action sequences, the formulaic screenplay, stock characters, leaden dialogue and wobbly accents feel gratingly amateurish in places. The thin premise, about a secret program of rogue government assassins, also feels thuddingly familiar in a world where Jason Bourne, John Wick and Villanelle on Killing Eve are all mainstream anti-heroes.
Smith’s action blockbusters have helped nudge his total career-spanning box office take beyond $8 billion, but in recent years he has mostly favored low-key, worthy dramas that left critics cold and audiences lukewarm — which may explain why he has now reunited with Bad Boys producer Jerry Bruckheimer to make Gemini Man, with two more chapters in their Miami cops franchise also in the pipeline.
Behind its high-tech visual gimmicky, Gemini Man is a dumb, depthless, undemanding fanboy pleaser which plants Smith dangerously close to Liam Neeson and Nicolas Cage in the midlife action-man league. That said, the huge profits scored by Aladdin and Suicide Squad prove that the 51-year-old star still commands enough global fan loyalty to elevate even mediocre films into critic-proof hits. His enduring marquee power, in tandem with Lee’s track record, could still generate big numbers when Paramount releases the movie Oct. 11 in U.S. theaters, with a worldwide rollout to follow. But both director and star have done much better work before.
Smith stars as Henry Brogan, undefeated champion hit man for the Defense Intelligence Agency, a thinly disguised version of the CIA. After terminating 72 bad guys with superhuman precision, Brogan is finally starting to suffer pangs of conscience. Needless to say, the screenplay spends very little time agonizing over the morality of state-sanctioned murder before the body count starts rising again.
Weary of the assassination game, Brogan now plans to retire and spend his autumn years fishing off the Georgia coast. But Machiavellian insiders at the DIA have other ideas. Chief among Brogan’s shadowy enemies is his former Army buddy Clay Varris (Clive Owen in scenery-chewing villain mode), now a military-industrial biotech tycoon who is working on a secret unit of perfect warriors, all genetically engineered to kill without remorse. His personal favorite is Junior (Smith again, in digitally de-aged form), a 25-year-old clone of Brogan whom Varris has raised as his adopted son.
Arguing that Brogan knows too much to be permitted to retire peacefully, Varris sends Junior to kill him on the grounds that only a younger, faster version of the agency’s top assassin can outthink and outgun his lethal older self. Sensing imminent danger, Brogan goes on the run with fellow rogue DIA officer Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and wise-cracking pilot sidekick Baron (Benedict Wong). Inevitably, sparks fly and loyalties shift as Brogan finally comes face to face with his hot-headed young doppelganger in picturesque corners of Colombia, then Hungary, and finally during a spectacular gunfight on home turf in Georgia.
The key special effect in Gemini Man is the digital de-aging of Smith himself. Using old photos and early movie roles for reference, Lee’s visual team do a very impressive job of rejuvenating the actor into a photorealistic fresh prince half his real age. Composite sequences where the two Smiths grapple with each other in kinetic hand-to-hand combat are also elegantly handled. Only a final coda, which features both men unmasked in bright daylight, exposes the younger version as a slightly creepy animated waxwork.
Lee shoots Gemini Man in an upgraded version of the high-resolution 3D format he pioneered on his 2016 military drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to arresting but divisive effect. In fairness to the director and his cinematographer Dion Beebe, the film is full of superb 3D detailing, from grand widescreen cityscapes to slo-mo explosions that appear to scatter broken glass into the audience.
But while Lee’s dedication to exploring this emerging digital aesthetic is admirable, it feels ill-suited to the larger-than-life conventions of a glossy genre thriller. Captured at an unusually high frame rate between 60 and 120 frames per second, the hyper-real look of Gemini Man is immersive and richly detailed. But it also has the disconcerting effect of making a big-budget cinematic spectacle look like a vintage videotaped TV drama. To steal a line from Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.
Production companies: Skydance Media, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Fosun Pictures, Alibaba Pictures
Cast: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong
Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriters: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger
Cinematographer: Dion Beebe
Editor: Tim Squyres
Music: Lorne Balfe
Rated PG-13, 117 minutes