Gemini Man is the third film in “visionary” filmmaker Ang Lee’s apparent string of technically ambitious but spiritually and aesthetically undercooked projects, and like its predecessors, it plays with some interesting concepts but, well, kinda blows ’em on weird, “next-gen” setpieces that probably won’t age well.
Centered on a premise that would have fit more appropriately in the shlocky sci-fi-action films of the late 90s and early 2000s, Gemini Man pits 2019 YouTuber Will Smith against 1991 Fresh Prince Will Smith. Best-of-the-best hitman Henry Brogan (Smith) has reached the end of the line; he’s tired of the contract killing, and he’s ready for a life of peace. Unfortunately for him, the powers that be can’t afford to lose their most talented killer, and as a result have created a younger clone of him, under the tutelage of his pseudo-father Clay Verris (Clive Owen). When Henry assassinates a valuable asset under false information provided to him, the government decides to sick his clone, nicknamed “Junior,” on him. He’s younger, faster, and supposedly free of Henry’s “pain,” but also inexperienced, naive, and full of his own insecurities.
What results is a cat-and-mouse, “me vs. myself” mutual pursuit that we’ve all seen before—personally, I preferred the time-travel-laden (and much more meaningful) rendition in Rian Johnson’s Looper. Lee attempts to stretch the story beyond its familiar structure with mildly intriguing conversations about combat trauma, self-identity, and guilt, but the hackneyed script from David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke clumsily tiptoes around any real substance by settling on trite truisms or pandery Will Smith-isms.
Lee also brings his signature flair for the technically impressive(ish) and visually oddball. Repulsively bland lighting setups and green-screen somehow give way to refreshingly unusual camera angles and movements. On the flipside, uniquely staged action sequences are undermined by wonky, rubbery visual effects that gave me flashbacks to the 2000s (think Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four films, or the second and third Matrix films). Explain to me, Ang, how the best approach to a one-on-one fist fight between two ordinary (albeit remarkable) human beings is to construct the entire sequence through dated CGI? The spectacle overall is an uncanny valley mishmash of bizarre in a cool way and bizarre in an annoying way.
It seems like low-hanging fruit to pick on the ambitious but ultimately wacky de-aging effects applied to Smith for Junior, but a large part of me feels like this kind of endeavor should have waited at least a few more years to when the technology was more convincing. Early on, young Will looks pretty good, shrouded by glasses, hats, quick cuts, and sharp lighting. But the more Lee exposes him in clear closeups and flat light, the more preposterous the digital makeup becomes. Eventually we’re watching Smith’s emotional, teary performance get muddled under wobbly and inspecific CGI facial expressions, like that painting of Jesus that got ruined during restoration several years ago.
Ultimately, Gemini Man is too formulaic and banal to satisfy viewers looking for deeper exploration, and too bizarre and off-kilter to appease the more casual masses looking for an action flick. I would almost say that’s an admirable balance to strive for, even in its failings, but Lee misses the mark of doing either interest justice, and it seems all in the name of arrogance. I think I’d rather watch Jet Li’s The One. It’s dumber, but also more fun.