If you’ve been paying attention to Rotten Tomatoes, you know that Gemini Man, starring Will Smith and directed by Ang Lee, isn’t getting a lot of critical love. We wish we could tell you something different. Unfortunately, despite some innovative special effects and solid performances, when it comes right down to it, Gemini Man is a hard movie to love.
The trailers for the film emphasize that Gemini Man features two performances by Will Smith, a feat that’s the result of first-of-its-kind technology. On the one hand, Smith plays 51-year-old Henry Brogan, a world-weary hitman for the U.S. government who, upon his retirement, finds the very people he worked for coming after him. Smith also plays 23-year-old Junior, a clone of Henry created by Clive Owen’s Clay Verris.
Owen runs a private defense organization and once served with Henry in the military. He still works with the government so after their agents fail to take out Henry, Verris takes over the operation and sends Junior — who he’s raised as his son — to assassinate his older counterpart, although neither Henry nor Junior know about one another. What ensues is a globe-hopping clash between the two that also ensnares Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Danny Zakarewski, a government agent who was originally sent to surveil Henry after his retirement, as well as Benedict Wong’s Baron, Henry’s old military buddy.
The creation of Junior is undeniably a technological achievement. Unlike many movies, such as the Martin Scorsese film The Irishman, Junior wasn’t created through de-aging. Junior is an entirely digital creation. Will Smith played the character and then a visual effects team created the digital version. It’s a process similar to the one used to create the tiger from Lee’s Oscar-winning movie, Life of Pi. While the technology isn’t perfect, Junior pretty much avoids the uncanny valley and looks fairly realistic. So even though the technology isn’t completely invisible, it’s very close.
However, all the sophisticated technology in the world can’t improve a sub-par story, and unfortunately, Gemini Man’s story is not especially compelling. There’s a lot to unpack with the clone conceit: nature vs. nurture, are clones disposable humans, what would you say to your younger (or older) self if you could actually have a conversation. Yet while the film nods to these themes, it’s not interested in unpacking any of them. Instead, Gemini Man is a fairly standard actioner that seems most concerned with showcasing its new big-screen technology.
Besides the technology that brought Junior to life, Lee also shot the film at the exceptionally high frame rate of 120 frames per second (the average movie unspools at 24 frames per second) and in 3D. Lee’s goal in using the combination of high frame rate and 3D was to make the movie feel as hyper-realistic as possible. And the combination does make you feel as if you are in the movie, although it’s quite disconcerting to watch at first.
While Lee’s desire to innovate how movies are made is admirable, his efforts often come across as a gimmick, especially in the action sequences. Many shots include guns pointed directly at the camera or cameras peering over our main characters’ shoulders. That, combined with the high frame rate and the 3D, makes the movie feel like a first-person shooter video game. Except the audience isn’t playing, which just makes for boring viewing.
In an interview with Deadline, Lee claimed he wanted the fighting in the film to be “messy” and “visceral.” He certainly succeeded on the former count. In general, the fighting looks fairly sloppy. Yet, for the fighting to feel “visceral” the characters and their situation would have to be more captivating, and that’s where Gemini Man falls flat.
Most of the movie’s characters, human and digital, never come across as more than skin-deep. Clive Owen, so good in movies like Children of Men, does everything but twirl his mustache as a one-note villain. Meanwhile, Smith gives a lived-in performance as the assassin with a conscience Henry, which makes the character easy to root for.
It’s Smith’s performance as Junior that doesn’t quite work. It’s hard to say if this is the result of Smith’s acting or the technology that was used to bring it to life, but Junior wears the same hang-dog expression for most of the movie. It’s meant to make him look young and naïve yet only succeeds in removing any nuance from the character.
The real stand-out in the movie is Winstead as the young woman who inadvertently becomes Smith’s partner in survival. Winstead’s Danny is the one character that feels closest to thoroughly realized, with dreams, perspectives and even a bit of a backstory of her own.
In fact, the scenes between Winstead’s Danny and Smith’s Henry are the most interesting part of the movie. They have an engaging dynamic that’s fun to watch — which is why it’s a shame the movie is so much more interested in everything but that relationship.
The twists and turns that the movie finds so compelling were mostly spoiled by the movie’s trailers months ago. And its final big reveal (no spoilers here) is laughable. Not to mention, the story as a whole barely holds up to even slight scrutiny.
If you want to see a good movie in which a character meets his younger self, watch the 2012 film Looper. Although it doesn’t employ cutting-edge technology to bring the main character’s older and young selves to life, it has a fascinating, complex story. And in the end, that’s what makes Looper a far more rewarding watch than Gemini Man.
Opening Friday nationwide, Gemini Man is directed by Ang Lee from a script written by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke. The film stars Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen and Benedict Wong.