Ang Lee and Will Smith. 10 years ago, such a cinematic alliance would have excited audiences to extreme heights. A decade past, Smith was the most charismatic bankable star in Hollywood—coming off a three-film run in Hancock, I Am Legend, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Today, the charm still exudes from his performances, but the bank is only open before peak hours. Lee, on the other hand, had exceptional works like Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution in his recent history. Moreover, their partnership isn’t the only significant time-lapse. Their film Gemini Man has languished in production purgatory for over 20 years with a long list of other creators and actors attached, and it probably should have languished some more as the final creation is ultimately a clumsy and stilted Sci-Fi spy thriller that nauseates the eyes.
Though a stealthy spy romp, nothing Gemini Man shows is subtle. That begins with the narrative’s protagonist Henry Brogan (Will Smith). A sniper with ungodly accuracy, Henry climbs atop a grassy hill. Below, a high-speed train passes by. His target sits by the window, a supposed terrorist. Henry takes aim, holding his shot until a little girl clears from his sights. She leaves: He shoots; The terrorist is dead. Job well done, except Henry’s shot was off by six inches. If he’d been off by anymore that girl would have been strewn across the floor. He’s lost a step, and the will. And though Henry is the best, he retires.
But he doesn’t remain retired for long. That terrorist wasn’t a bad guy, and his true identity leads to a mystery that’ll cause an existential crisis for him. Consequently, former soldier, DIA handyman, and Gemini founder Clay Verris (Clive Owen, who convinces in an emotionally nonsensical role) orders Henry’s death before he discovers the truth—sending a familiar foe.
Lee’s Gemini Man lacks masterful world building, instead relying on dead-end “clues” to feign some source of mystery in a boringly obvious narrative. For one, the green ace of spades tattoo on Henry’s wrist. All his close associates have it, his army buddies: Jack (Douglas Hodge) and Baron (Benedict Wong, who really has fun with this laissez-faire character). David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke’s screenplay intimates a larger brotherhood who share the marker, but nothing more comes. Instead, it’s an obtrusive reoccurring shot. Once more, the narrative takes pains to foretell Henry’s weaknesses: bees and water, but rarely returns to such fears—creating a regular Checkov’s gun.
To search for the truth, Henry flees with Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an undercover DIA agent meant to keep tabs on the retired sniper. They’re hunted by Jr (Will Smith), a younger clone of Henry raised by Verris who possesses all of the sniper’s considerable talents without the weariness. Frustratingly, it takes far too long for Henry to connect the dots. Though he jokingly says he hasn’t looked in the mirror in years, fearful of the man he’ll see, even in this narrative, it’s unbelievable that he doesn’t recognize himself immediately. Jr also lacks consistent characterization. While Henry as a blockbuster character is intriguing—how often are thrillers sorrowful and deal with PTSD—unfortunately, Jr’s arc doesn’t succeed.
While he supposedly didn’t inherit Henry’s baggage, he’s not insusceptible to doubt and fear as Verris promises. Furthermore, the de-aging and CG technology is startling wonky, the stuff of nightmares. When Jr chases Henry through Colombian streets, his movements and body contortions makes him more a progeny of Mister Fantastic—stretching limbs out of comprehension as he runs down the sniper — than Henry. Often, Smith’s de-aged face doesn’t just look plastic. The manufactured sheen looks 10 years behind, as if Jr was plopped into the frame from The Matrix. Gemini Man would have been far more compelling if Lee and co. had changed Jr into a synthetic computer program dropped into the simulation. At least, he’d look the part.
And while moments arrive for Will Smith’s megaton smile and charm to nearly make Gemini Man watchable, in an endearingly bad way, those beguiling beats never arrive in succession. Instead, the plot turns become more fantastical than the premise of cloned soldiers, and the dialogue tone deaf and tasteless. The amount of times Henry refers to sex: completely out of context, as bait or as a rite of passage is trapped in the Sci-Fi extravaganzas of the 90’s like Independence Day or Men in Black—works this film would only hope to scratch. If anything, comedic fissures do open —leading to several portions of Lee’s spy thriller being unintentionally hilarious. And while there’s a melancholy to seeing supremely talented individuals whiff so badly on a creative project, it’s never been so funny as in Gemini Man.