Around a decade ago, Hollywood honchos estimated that we would have digital graphics so good within five years that they would be able to make new movies with dead actors by inserting computer-generated characters into live-action scenes. Time has passed, and we’re still not there. Worse than that, some filmmakers pretend that we are. Much publicity surrounds the release of Gemini Man and its premise that Will Smith’s character discovers a younger copy or clone of himself. Such encounters have peppered science fiction for decades, so the director must offer more than just digital de-aging to keep audiences’ attention. Unfortunately, Gemini Man’s central gimmick and familiar plot come off more as Photoshop Man than a compelling drama.
Director Ang Lee and writers David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke bring their years of film and TV work to this project and create something much better than it probably looked on paper. The story could be overlaid onto any Mission: Impossible or Jason Bourne plot. Henry Brogan (Smith) possesses perfect aim and commands a high price as a hit man. When a hit nearly goes wrong, he decides that it’s time to retire. The government powers who send Henry on missions don’t like retirees, so it’s a quick turn to life on the run where he compromises and snags another agent named Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), assigned to look over him, and enlists the help of former colleague Baron (Benedict Wong). Black ops unit leader Clay Verris (Clive Owen) has an ace up his sleeve and sends — no spoiler here because he’s on the poster! — a younger clone of Henry known as Junior (also Smith) after him to tie up loose ends.
Were it not for the cast, this would be a direct-to-video — is that even a term anymore? — release or at the very best a new Netflix movie. Smith blends action, drama and comedy/sarcasm well, so he makes you forget that this is just another story about an assassin on the run from his bosses. Hell, he even includes a nod to his hometown (Philadelphia). Winstead impresses me in every one of her films (2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane comes to mind) and has spent some time on TV projects like Fargo recently. Without Winstead, Gemini Man would lose some of its heart and warmth. Similarly, Benedict Wong reliably plays a best friend or ally, and his latest forays were Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame as, uh, a character named Wong. We never got to experience Owen as James Bond as I had hoped, but I enjoy him nonetheless as the heavy when he deliciously serves up the bad news to the hero. There’s nothing lacking about the acting, so if you forget what’s unoriginal for a while, you can enjoy the cast who’s delivering it.
Almost longer than has been going on in cinema, gaming fans have watched the advances in modeling of digital characters. Such graphics used to be confined to the cinematic scenes that reward players with story sequences, but many current games use lifelike digital characters in actual game play because of powerful hardware. You can still tell a digital re-creation of a human being from a real one. The imperfections and movements are so hard to reproduce. On a TV or game console screen, you don’t mind as much. On a movie screen, the flaws come off as obvious and a little rubbery. I don’t know exactly how they created Junior, but the digital trickery doesn’t pass the test. In one scene that you’ll know as soon as you watch it, the effects for Junior look so bad that I’d swear that they let Smith play around with the computer renderers that day. Lee would have made a more cohesive and believable film had he found a look-alike for Smith in the casting agencies. Aren’t there dozens of Smith impersonators wandering Hollywood?
Gemini Man has some nice aspects about it, too, so my mixed response requires the appropriate kudos where deserved. As demonstrated in my accompanying /chart, the story ebbs and flows as the action picks up and then quiets down. Henry goes off the grid within a half-hour, so the pace kept me interested as he moves from one beautiful real-world location like Cartagena, Colombia, to another. Although Henry confesses that he has been “avoiding mirrors lately,” Lee throws in a lot of reflective surfaces and actual mirrors to represent the duality of Henry and Junior. Pay attention to appreciate these visuals and the scenes where Henry and Junior share the screen at the same time. Although Tom Cruise probably does it better, the motorcycle chase ranks as the best sequence in the film. Lee manages to do some things with a motorcycle that I haven’t seen before, whether possible or not.
I don’t doubt that you will enjoy Gemini Man and then probably forget it until you stumble over it years from now. Was this an experiment for Lee like Hulk or a technical achievement in his résumé like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Check back later. There’s an attempt to address the fact that true clones would not be exact replicas of people because of the necessary shared experiences, accumulated knowledge and even physical events. Nevertheless, Junior acts like a younger duplicate of Henry. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain pulling the digital strings if you want to spend some time with a couple of Smiths that are still better than a single Smith as Genie in Aladdin.