Cloning can be a long and complex process. If you happen to be cloning someone with the intention of raising them as your own child and eventually assigning them a hit job as a coming-of-age present, it might even take over 20 years. The same goes for making Gemini Man.
For the past 22 years, this film has been taffy-pulled over and over again, undergoing six rewrites (including one by Game of Throne‘s David Benioff), changing hands between a slew of several production companies, cycling through pretty much every middle-aged male action star in Hollywood for its lead role, and bouncing like a hot potato from director to director until finally landing on acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee.
It makes sense that the story was conceived in 1997. An ex-secret agent on the run from a younger, stronger version of himself who’s been hired to kill him? It’s a high concept premise that recalls Face/Off from that same year and a chase narrative that aligns with the Bourne franchise and other action thrillers of the time. But the technology to pull it off wasn’t available until now, and so we end up with this slightly stale, Y2K-era story in the year 2019. The characters’ relationships are underdeveloped, the plot makes little sense, and the whole thing looks the way of a Call of Duty gameplay. It just shouldn’t work… but, somehow, it sort of does.
Like I said, the plot of Gemini Man is a step back in time—think of it as the nineties baby version of Looper (2012). After a particularly unnerving mission involving a Russian terrorist and a bullet train, Henry Brogan (Will Smith) wants to retire from his soul-sucking gig as a hitman for the Defense Intelligence Agency. When his friend Jack (Douglas Hodge) says that Henry’s latest kill was not a terrorist but an innocent man, Henry decides to arrange a meeting with Yuri (Ilia Volok), the Russian informant who tipped off Jack about the target.
With Henry sniffing around, DIA head Janet Lassiter (Linda Emond) squabbles with Clay Verris (Clive Owen), Henry’s old army buddy and now owner of a private assassin factory called Gemini, over how to kill him. Verris sends his most skilled supersoldier to finish the job and, with the help of fellow DIA agent Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Henry learns that the young gunman who seems to predict his every move is actually his clone (also played by Smith), raised by Verris as “Clay Junior”—“Junior” for short. While on the run Verris’ men in Budapest, Henry, Danny, and expert pilot Baron (Benedict Wong) race to dissuade Junior and uncover the mystery of Gemini.
I should start with the action scenes, which were the highlight of this film. While there are some overly exaggerated bike flips and rooftop jumps that forced a chuckle or two, I didn’t come to Gemini Man for believability. I came to watch Will Smith on a motorcycle whizzing along a wall that’s only two feet wide while he tries to assassinate himself. And that’s what I got.
It’s also gratifying to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead kick some major ass, and with a refreshingly sensible haircut no less. Plus, while there is some flirting (mandatory Hollywood rules, I guess), I really appreciate that the film doesn’t go the romance route with Danny and Henry. It’s exhilarating to watch their relationship develop as they learn how to fight in tandem.
Speaking of the action scenes, Lee opted to release the film in 3D at 120 frames per second, creating an ultra-crisp HD look that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. People have compared the effect to the kind of motion-smoothing effects you see on flat screens on display at Costco. The novelty of the technology started wearing off around the time my ears began to hurt from the 3D glasses, but I found it a worthwhile experience nonetheless. While I sometimes forgot whether I was watching a movie or playing a video game, certain moments were heightened by their digital flare. Besides, I have always believed that there is nothing wrong with spectacle; after all, cinema was founded on it. I admire Lee’s vision and risk-taking here.
One problem with these super hi-def visuals is that it leaves no room for mistakes. This makes the CGI de-aging of Smith all the more difficult. With such a clean image, every flaw is noticeable, particularly in the weird blurriness going on with his upper lip. Overall though, the tech does a pretty bang-up job at turning back the clock 28 years to return the youthful glow of Smith’s Fresh Prince days. Junior does take a trip through the uncanny valley in the film’s last few minutes, but he’s also drenched in sunlight and has to move around a lot more than before. Sure, it’s distracting—all de-aging is—but it didn’t keep me from thinking of Junior as his own character, which is an accomplishment.
The main complaint I hear about this film is its weak story. The ideas are indeed contrived: Verris clones Henry because he’s the best fighter around and wants to use genetic modification to make him even better. He plans to take the clone’s conscience out of the equation and create an entire army of lab rat soldiers with no humanity holding them back. This notion is pretty tired—even Spy Kids has been there and back—but I wouldn’t mind it if the movie explored the psychological implications of cloning a bit more.
There is some cerebral stuff at play here, with the film kicking around questions of mortality and the ethics of science. On the mortality end, I’ve got to hand it to Smith; mere glances between Henry and Junior pack quite a punch. On the science end, I’m glad there’s no “humanity is our strength” monologue a la Hobbes and Shaw but really wished the film would bring something new to the table rather than make Henry yammer on about his “ghosts.” At the same time, I enjoyed its playful approach to the concept of parenting a younger version of yourself. In a movie that generally takes itself too seriously, those moments got some genuine laughs.
Despite my hesitation to believe Will Smith is the best fighter in the world, he delivers in the lead role. While another actor may have brought a lighter, campier element to Gemini Man, I didn’t feel like Smith bogged his role down. I think the film’s faults do not lie with its cast, except maybe in the case of Clive Owen. I love the guy, and he meets the mark here, but his accent slippage was a little much. Winstead is fantastic, and I hope we continue to see her in both her old indie stomping grounds and more mainstream flicks. Wong is lovable as always, but his comic relief was a little clunky next to the film’s often humorless tone. And while I would have liked more development, the chemistry between Smith, Winstead, and Wong played very nicely.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars.
Gemini Man is no great cinematic feat, but it’s still a worthwhile endeavor and grand ol’ time for action fans. A lot of people are beating Lee up for his more recent ventures, but I say let the man do what he wants. He’s embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, an endless journey that all directors must make. While my instincts might agree with suggestions that his recent technological obsessions have caused him to put artistry on the back burner, at least he’s trying something new—and I prefer a swing and a miss to no swing at all.