Gemini Man could very well be director Ang Lee’s worst movie. I can’t say for certain because there are a few I haven’t seen, but at the very least, it’s a far cry from when the director cared about making movies about people. Even his misbegotten Hulk adaptation is concerned with a tortured father-son relationship as much as its CGI superhero. But that kind of care is nowhere to be found in the bland and generic Gemini Man, a movie that avoids all of its interesting ideas about identity and legacy in favor of Will Smith fighting a younger CGI version of Will Smith whose appearance ranges from convincing to cartoony. There’s no artistry or substance to Gemini Man. There’s just a director trying out a tool that some other filmmaker will probably use to far better effect sometime in the near future.
Henry Brogan (Smith) is an assassin for the Defense Intelligence Agency who knows he’s getting rusty, so he decides to retire. However, when he stumbles upon a dossier spiked with bad intel, he becomes a target for the DIA and its defense contractor partner Clay Verris (Clive Owen), who runs the paramilitary organization Gemini. Henry goes on the run with burned neophyte DIA agent Danny Zakarewski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and after they easily dispatch a bunch of DIA goons, Clay convinces the DIA to send in “Junior” (also Smith), a clone of Brogan whose 25 years younger and is supposed to have all of Henry’s strengths with none of his weaknesses.
The core question that Gemini Man can’t answer is why it bothers with an expensive CGI double of Smith rather than just finding a young actor and applying old-age make-up. We’ve seen this old-vs-young thing before, but it was always narratively justified. When there’s an old and a young Jeff Bridges in TRON: Legacy, we get it because Jeff Bridges was young when he made TRON. The same goes for Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting himself in Terminator: Genisys. But there’s no good reason to make a younger Will Smith other than to play around with some tech tools, and that weak excuse seems to be the driving force behind the existence of Gemini Man.
And that’s a shame because there are some interesting ideas the film could play with. Henry is literally fighting himself, and the movie could have been a fascinating meditation on regret and legacy. If they had told the story from Junior’s perspective, it could be a movie about being afraid of your choices and what they’ll turn you into. The father-son relationship between Clay and Junior could have been a rich dynamic between a manipulative father figure and a son eager to please. Gemini Man discards all of that and always goes for the simplest route possible. Clay cares about Junior, but he’s ultimately just a bad guy. Henry has some regrets, but there’s no time to dwell on them. The movie is so concerned with just pushing the plot forward that it neglects character, and the plot is rote and predictable. It feels like it came from the 90s, and that’s probably because it did since this screenplay has been kicking around since 1997 when its story beats would have felt remotely fresh.
The kicker is that the reason for this film’s existence—the digital clone that’s a younger version of the main character—doesn’t look that great. To wit Anchorman, 60% of the time, it works every time. When Junior is convincing, it’s really impressive and you forget that you’re looking at, to quote VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer, “a completely digital creation.” But they didn’t get it to where they needed, so for every scene where Junior is convincing, there’s another scene where looks rubbery and fake, especially when the movie has him speed up and engage in a fight scene. It rvaries scene by scene, and I get that this is a necessary step for someone else just as TRON: Legacy was a necessary step in the digital de-aging process. But you know your movie is in trouble when the nicest thing someone can say about it is, “Well, it advances the technology.”
What’s more infuriating is that it’s not like Lee is working with bad actors. Smith remains charming and this seems like a smart move for him to accept that he’s entering a new phase in his career where he’s not the hot-shot action hero, but he’s not so old that he has to hang up action movies entirely. Winstead gives off a young Sigourney Weaver vibe to the point where I wondered why she wasn’t the lead in a big action movie. You’ve got the always welcome Benedict Wong as a roguish pilot who helps out Henry and Danny. And yet it’s all kind of wasted because Lee doesn’t seem to care that much about the characters or their relationships. Everything is as flat and uninteresting as the film’s visuals.
It’s here I should note that the film was screened for critics in Atlanta at 24fps even though Lee shot the film in 120fps 4K 3D. I couldn’t help but wonder if the film was supposed to look better in HFR and that the action and backgrounds would pop more with that technology. But Paramount didn’t deem this presentation essential, and so what we’re left with a movie that’s an eyesore. The exotic locales all blend together and feel weirdly unpopulated and lifeless.
Watching Gemini Man, it’s tough to believe that it’s from the same filmmaker who provided such care and delicacy to his characters and their stories in movies like Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Gemini Man’s only concern seems to be with its digital character, and that digital character only works intermittently. There are neat ideas swimming around in the story, but Lee shows no interest in pursuing them, and instead just goes through the motion of a B-movie spy thriller where the shadowy agency turned on one of its best agents so he has to get some answers. Maybe down the line when someone perfects a digital CGI clone of a famous actor, they’ll point to Gemini Man as laying down the foundation. There’d be no other reason to remember this movie.