If only Oscar-winning Taiwanese film master Ang Lee would get past his obsession with digital gimmicks and return to the soulful humanism he lavished on classics like Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain.
Unfortunately, he has instead given us Gemini Man, a substandard action movie any hack could have directed for producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Lee’s interest was presumably piqued by a technology that would allow A-lister Will Smith, 51, to do battle with his 23-year-old self through a digital de-aging process. It’s a neat trick for a few scenes. Then the novelty wears off, and you start to notice that young Will looks rubbery. Not quite formed. And all the green-screen magic it takes for Smith to mix it up with a mass of pixels passing for a Fresh Prince-era version of himself does not compensate for a dull plot, achingly familiar characters and dialogue that’s no fun at all.
The script, credited to David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, has been in development since the 1990’s. (At least it earned its mustiness and worked over quality over three decades.) Smith plays Henry Brogan, a special-forces assassin who’s ready to retire after 72 kills. Henry wants to go fishing off the Georgia coast, but — guess what — they keep pulling him back in. The poor dude can’t even flirt with a sassy boathouse employee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) without finding out that she’s Defense Intelligence Agency operative Danny Zakarweski. There’s no choice but for Henry to go on the run again, this time with Henry’s pilot bestie, Baron (Benedict Wong).
It turns out that Clay Varris (Clive Owen), a biotech profiteer from Henry’s past, wants him dead. And the only one who can kill Henry is Junior, a clone Verris made from Henry’s DNA and raised from a pup. “It’s like he’s the son of both of us,” says Varris in a truly creepy line, one of the film’s few impactful moments. Verris wants Junior to be the prototype for an army of remorseless super-soldiers. But before you waste time trying to mine sense from that preposterous premise, Lee and cinematographer Dion Beebe vainly try to hide the nonsense with visual razzle-dazzle.
There is an admittedly exciting mototcycle chase through the streets of Cartagena, in which Junior tries to end his daddy-clone in a blaze of flaming metal. Another scene, set in the caves of Budapest, pits father and son in hand-to-hand combat — there’s some humor in watching Smith encounter his jug-eared younger self, and the cave-lighting is shadowy enough to maintain the illusion. But in later daylight scenes, the optics show their digital seams. By then, the script — which plays like warmed-over John Wick and Jason Bourne (not to mention Rian Johnson’s far more inventive 2012 film Looper) — has become so weighed down in exposition that even Smith’s natural charm can’t lift it. No one’s knocking Lee for trying to raise the bar on filmmaking through digital innovation. But, as the lab-grown Junior learns, a high-tech upgrade isn’t always an improvement.