Ang Lee’s sci-fi action movie Gemini Man, which stars Will Smith as a government assassin who discovers that he was cloned by his former superiors, brims with the kind of possibilities of which transcendent pulp stories are made: an exclusive world of cold-blooded pros; a cavalier attitude toward both science and bodily harm; an air of weariness and regret; a hero who is fast and deadly with a gun but wishes he weren’t. Whether these thematic concerns end up being fulfilled is a different question; anyone who tries to take the film (which has been in development since the mid-to-late 1990s, and passed through the hands of many screenwriters) as seriously as it appears to take itself will probably be frustrated by its dopey sentimentality.
Yet one can smirk at the movie’s fuzzy philosophies and primordial clichés and still appreciate the delivery of Lee’s action scenes. Instead of the kinetic baroque of the John Wick movies or the IMAX-scale daredevilry of the later Mission: Impossibles (to name two other recent examples in which smart, sturdy action filmmaking doubles as star text), Gemini Man goes for the clean and energetic, with moments of weightless, near-airborne movement that are probably the closest Lee has come to recapturing the wire-assisted highs of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Though one would be mistaken to think that this film aspires to that earlier hit’s sense of romance and wonder.
Smith’s Henry Brogan, who is something like the best assassin in the world, is introduced to us as he lines up a shot that hits through the window of a roaring high-speed train right before it passes through a tunnel. It’s his 72nd confirmed kill on behalf of the Department Of Defense, and his last before he retires to a secluded property in Georgia. The reason isn’t the faltering of middle age (like Smith, Brogan has recently turned 51) so much as a slow-developing conscience. In fact, the retirement is something of a feint, as we discover that an old war buddy has come to Henry with evidence that the government has been feeding him phony dossiers for his targets, and that the foreign terrorists he believes he’s been killing on behalf of the red, white, and blue might actually be American scientists.
Unfortunately for the informant (but not for viewers who prefer their movies to just get on with it without wasting too much time on early exposition), their last conversation is picked up by a drone. By nightfall, Henry is on the run from heavily armed clean-up squads. With the help of his former comrade-in-arms Baron (Benedict Wong), he quickly makes his way to Colombia, bringing along Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the government agent who was supposed to be keeping him under surveillance before all hell broke loose. (She’s with the Defense Intelligence Agency, presumably assigned to a less nefarious division.) And since Henry and his pals have already dispatched a dozen or so highly trained goons, his old boss, the military-industrial kingpin Clay Varris (Clive Owen), offers to send his best operative to finish the job—a young super-killer who looks, well, exactly like Henry.
Lee, a chameleonic director, has in recent years developed a habit of turning movies into tech demos, experimenting with elaborate visual effects simulacra in Life Of Pi and high-frame-rate, high-resolution digital 3D in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Gemini Man employs both. (It was previewed to The A.V. Club in the 24 fps 2D version that will play in most theaters.) Instead of de-aging Smith through digital effects à la Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel or the cast of Martin Scorsese’s upcoming The Irishman, Lee has opted for an even more elaborate solution: the younger Henry (dubbed “Junior”) is an almost completely digital creation, performed by Smith via motion capture. For all the technical wizardry involved, the result falls somewhere in the steep downward slope of the uncanny valley: Junior, with his sad-puppy eyes, never looks completely human in motion (and sometimes looks just plain goofy), and the effect is done no favors by the fact that he spends a good part of his screen time sharing space with a real, flesh-and-blood Will Smith.
As it turns out, Junior is a clone, created 23 years ago using Henry’s DNA and raised by Varris as his adopted son; the idea was to create a version of Henry that would have all of his genetics and reflexes but none of the trauma of his unhappy childhood. (As to what Varris actually thinks of his “son,” one has to look at this flamboyant villain’s choice of interior decoration—the choice of a wall-sized Vladimir Tretchikoff kitsch print for Junior’s bedroom as compared to the Francis Bacons and Cy Twomblys that hang in Varris’ own digs.)
Gemini Man doesn’t spend much time on the generic science fiction of its premise. One presumes that the characters, most of whom are veterans of the cloak-and-dagger trade, have seen enough to just roll with it without lingering on the existential implications. The decision to treat it as something closer to daddy-issues family drama than mad science feels like an obvious Lee touch, inevitably recalling his take on the Incredible Hulk. But as much as the younger clone makes an all-too-perfect embodiment for those themes of remorse and starting over that inevitably haunt stories about aging killers (especially those that involve the fabled “one last job”), it’s easier to be drawn to Gemini Man’s unintentionalities: the way all that talk about moving on from the violence of the past sits with the heroes’ willingness to mow down faceless henchmen without a second’s pause; the curious (and repeatedly mentioned) sexlessness of the characters; the fact that Junior could just as easily be a stand-in for the project itself. (After all, they were born around the same time.)
Because for all of its tear-stained speechifying about how you aren’t what they made you, the film is best enjoyed for its killer qualities: Lee’s gracefully elastic direction of the sequence that first introduces Junior, pitting him against Henry in a series of shoot-outs that turns into an awesome motorcycle chase; the spotless hand-to-hand fights; the way the climactic showdown (staged against the less-than-scenic backdrop of a small-town hardware store) turns into fiery, full-bore martial arts action; the fisheye lenses, digitally composited smash zooms, and other eccentric touches with which Lee seasons the set pieces. Like its characters, Gemini Man is groan-inducingly sincere, but runs like a machine when it counts.