[Review] ‘GEMINI MAN’ has Will Smith suffering from a serious action/sci-fi identity crisis

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James Clay // Film Critic

GEMINI MAN

PG-13, 117 minutes.
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong

Gemini Man was not screened in high frame rate or 3D for this press screening. 

The idea of evil twins, doppelgangers, clones, or doubles (however you want to slice it ) rarely, if ever, have anything valuable to say about the human condition. There are exceptions to the rule, but it takes a filmmaker who wants things to get a bit more strange.

Take, for instance, Denis Villeneuve’s ENEMY, a wonky film told through an adventurous prism, or David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS, which leans into the body horror elements with a psychodrama twist. It takes a master to make a concept like this work. Even Rian Johnson’s LOOPER dips too much into the pulpier details to make it hold up with multiple viewings.

Leave it up to director Ang Lee to shoot his shot with his clone war film GEMINI MAN. Will Smith plays both a current and younger version of himself with some heavy de-aging work to make the film more conceivable. Lee is the rare filmmaker with not one but two Oscars for directing motion pictures. He’s always embraced the challenge of reinventing himself as an artist. But with his first try playing in the realm of original science fiction, it just may be his most uninspired narrative to date. This (and the upcoming Martin Scorsese epic THE IRISHMAN) will be the test to see if this de-aging trend is going to take hold of filmmaking in the immediate future.

Henry Brogan (Smith), a sharpshooter who has been killing bad guys with a sniper rifle for — insert generic government agency here — for about 30 years. He is getting ready for early self-imposed retirement. This doesn’t sit too well with the higher-ups, and he’s been given a kill order after being fed some misinformation about his most recent target. There’s an intriguing element of government betrayals bubbling under the surface, none of it ever comes to a boil.

Lee and Smith are more interested in the more sensational thrills (that play out in true melodramatic fashion). Once Brogan is on the run, he deduces that he’s being surveilled by Agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who holds her own and comes along for the ride. After being quickly discovered and eliminating a group of armed assailants, the duo is attacked by a man who looks awfully like Brogan, just a few decades younger. The chase is on and is being led by an ego-driven baddie named Clay Verris (Clive Owen), who is using a cloned version of Brogan to eliminate the duo all for the sake of keeping up the tired trope of “cleaning up loose ends.”

Will Smith (left) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (right) in GEMINI MAN (photo courtesy of Paramount)

The story surrounding GEMINI MAN is a bit of a throwback. Smith isn’t a stranger to sci-fi. Still, when you strip away all the pomp and circumstance of the story – written by notable screenwriters David Benioff (GAME OF THRONES) and Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) – it aims and executes at telling a simple father/son story.

There’s a brief moment where you can see what excites Lee about the prospect of bringing this action spectacle to life. Nothing has the same energy as the Smith vs. Smith motorcycle chase in Colombia. It plays well on the uncanny valley elements, as Brogan starts to adjust his eyes as to who exactly is attacking him. Matched with riveting motorcycle choreography, this is the set-piece people will be talking about.

Winstead delivers once again. She’s been an actor who doesn’t settle for the low hanging fruit of Hollywood roles. Even though there’s not much for her on the page, she brings it – and honestly, she is far more compelling than the two Will Smiths put together.

Smith, on the other hand, needs to challenge himself in the acting department. He’s able to bring a movie star charm that made Big Willie Weekend a thing back in the late 90s, but that’s as far his character depth goes.

No shade at Marvel, but this is like what filmmaker Martin Scorsese said in the press last week: It’s a group of actors doing the best they can, but ultimately, GEMINI MAN feels like a theme park. Relying on the 120 fps as opposed to the traditional 24fps, on top of the computer-generated Will Smith through the prism of 3D glasses, GEMINI MAN is exciting advances for cinema in theory. The problem is audiences are going to have trouble even finding this experience at a readily available theater. Films like GEMINI MAN and ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL are trying to cast a wider net by making stories that feel more palatable for general audiences. It’s just a bit ironic that for films that are attempting to break ground on a visual level, feel so narratively antiquated.

GEMINI MAN offers up an attempt at cinematic rule-breaking only to be rooted in a goofy sensibility that settles for more a split personality than ever being able to agree on a tone that takes the audiences on a satisfying journey. This experiment could work if viewers get the chance to see the full scope of what Lee has to offer. I guess you could say this is a film suffering from an identity crisis.

Grade: C

GEMINI MAN opens nationwide on Friday.