Technology has forever changed the world, but the people who live in it will always make audiences care about movies much more than eye candy or astounding special effects. Director Ang Lee’s Gemini Man has all of the latest technological trappings, most notably CGI and more CGI. Sadly this halfwit extravaganza lacks suspense and emotion, and what we do get makes Transformers look like an intellectual character study by comparison.
Of course, Lee is a formidable filmmaker. Anyone who’s seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi is aware of his talents. But Gemini Man is a by-the-numbers action-thriller that also happens to be the cinematic equivalent of a tech demonstration. Shot in 120 frames per second (a big difference from the usual 24 FPS), and captured through Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital effects, the director presents audiences with the first ever digital clone. This part of the cinematic gamble — that two Will Smiths are better than one on screen — does pay off, and it’s pretty incredible to see the 51 year old actor look identical to his Fresh Prince days. But the story that surrounds these two characters is less than incredible — way less.
For retiring assassin Henry Brogan (Smith) the end of his career means no more killing. He’s just sniped someone on a moving train from so far away it seems to be another area code. Kill number 72 as it is, is the perfect number to call it quits. For the first act, he’s either fishing or talking with old pals in exposition scenes. “I find myself avoiding mirrors lately,” he says unironically, but he’ll soon come to discover that his mirror image has been programmed for another kill that hits very close to home.
The word “Gemini” refers to the zodiac sign with twins as its symbol. Here, it refers to the younger version of Henry. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but, for Henry, it’s creepy dueling his 23-year-old self. Especially one that knows all his best moves. His only chance at escape is a pilot (Benedict Wong) and a female agent named Dany (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who could have been an empowering presence if she was given something to do. Besides staring at the sumptuous locations, the rest of the cast are left staring off into space.
Lee has a pictorial instinct unlike any other. His landscapes possess a fetishistic opulence — open seas, reflecting clouds, European bath houses lined with statues — that are a joy to look at. It’s as if screenwriters David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke conjured the script on the basis of cool places they wanted to visit. Every scene gives us something new to look at: Will Smith fighting Will Smith under palm trees in a Cuban alleyway; Will Smith fighting Will Smith in Hungary; Will Smith fighting Will Smith by candlelight in the catacombs. However gorgeous, the novelty wears thin, and ultimately turns sour.
Like everything else, both of Smith’s terrific performances get lost in the thriller tropes and blockbuster action. Efforts to reshape familiar images in hyper-real focus, make everything look and feel artificial. A dirt bike chase on the cobblestone streets of Cartagena, for example, is shot in unbroken takes, the camera following the two Henrys as they zip by warm colored buildings. It’s striking, but at the same time it looks too digitally enhanced. What makes our jaws drop in the similarly plotted Mission Impossible series is the realism. That really is Tom Cruise jumping from building to building. Even with the equally strong star power of Smith, this digital spectacle is dim by comparison.
Gemini Man aspires to be deeper than your average action flick with an obvious Freudian message about how our worst enemy is ourselves. There’s also a constipated-looking Clive Owen helming a legion of clones meant to add an anti-capitalism subtext. What it all amounts to, however, is a throwaway genre exercise disguised as a technological experiment. The drama rings hollow, the rapport is laughable (not in a good way) and the characters aren’t fleshed out beyond the dimensions of a computer screen.