There is nothing particularly novel about the setup of Gemini Man. Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, a master assassin with 72 kills under his belt. He is on the verge of retirement, and the government organization that hires him, the Defense Intelligence Agency, sends the next great thing in assassination against him.
The first act is a thorough illustration of Brogan’s unmatched skill. He evades, he eviscerates, he saves. He exposes the young agent who has been tasked with surveilling him (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He looks down the sights of plenty of guns (with the gun cocked at a super cool angle). Long story short, Henry Brogan is a fairly slick agent. But we also learn, essentially from the first time he opens his mouth, that he is weary. He is a killer like no other, but each kill brings on an existential pain. He can no longer look at himself in the mirror.
Frankly, the entire first act is a cliche wrapped in director Ang Lee’s beautiful compositions. Brogan is the archetypal haunted hero. He is impenetrable but contains endlessly empathy. He is seemingly the perfect person, which becomes a complication once the film becomes about the humanity of imperfection.
Some time into the second act, we are introduced to the marketed premise of Gemini Man. It would be a spoiler if the marketing didn’t front-load it. In the context of the film, the notion of a de-aged Will Smith trying to assassinate present day Will Smith is a light reveal. What’s more, there is a prolonged section of the film where Brogan refuses to believe that the skilled assassin trying to off him is him. Without the marketing, this would be unfulfilled dramatic irony. With it, it is a tedious exercise in storytelling.
And this is the fundamental issue with Gemini Man. It is not the earnest performance of Smith. It is not the ambitious computer effects experiment. It is not Lee’s directorial hand. It is the screenwriting, which time and time again fails to be as captivating as the pieces around it.
The plotting is somewhat rote, and it is littered with bulky expository scenes. Aside from the doppleganger aspect, it is a basic man-falsely-accused story. The doppleganger aspect is interesting, in that it probes gently at thematic conversations about regret, the nature vs. nurture of conscience, and the definition of humanity. But these themes are extracted only at surface-level. They fuel the powerful performance of Smith but do little else.
The CG that is necessary for this film to function is fairly good. It gets rubbery during action sequences, but I kind of like that aesthetic given the all-out nature of these sequences. It could be argued that it adds a video-gamey look to the fights, but it is hard to deny Lee’s motorcycle chase sequence. If Ang Lee wanted to work on a video game, I’d wait in line to buy it. That’s all I’m saying. (Also, the final scene has the worst visual effects work in the picture, as it takes place in day lighting, but I have a feeling it would look better in the high-frame rate projection that I was not able to see the film in).
Make no mistake: this is not top-tier Ang Lee. His hands being on this material amplifies it, certainly. But Gemini Man is a superficial exploration of the ethics of cloning dressed up in slick action sequences. This is a strange brew when you mix all the pieces in, and what results is a strange film. Smith is giving it his all. Lee’s ambition to redefine digital cinema is certainly worth rallying behind, and his action sequences are visually immersive enough to match his technological goals. But the story is thin and superficial, ultimately not holding the weight of this ambitious production.
Gemini Man: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)