By Liam Lacey
Ang Lee — the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility, and Brokeback Mountain — is a major filmmaker. You just wouldn’t know it from Gemini Man, an awkward misfire of an action movie in which Will Smith plays an assassin who has to fight with his own younger clone, in a lethal game of digital shadow boxing.
The clone Will Smith is played by a digital version of Smith, borrowed from movies going back to Bad Boys and Independence Day. The creation is not as skin-crawlingly uncomfortable as Jar-Jar Binks but he’s a bit rubbery. The furrowed brow and jug ears and jutting chin are there, but there seems to have been a lot of plastic surgery around the eyes. It’s unavoidably distracting when he’s in close-up, when you find yourself counting the ways he does and doesn’t resemble his analog original.
Smith, the real biological actor, plays Henry Brogan, a 51-year-old elite government sniper for a government intelligence organization called the Defense Intelligence Agency or DIA. Brogan demonstrates his special skills in an opening scene in which he kills a man in a bullet train two kilometers away. But Brogan didn’t “feel” the shot this time and after 72 kills, he wants to hang up his telescopic rifle.
On the evening of his retirement, a team of bad guys attack him and he’s forced to go on the run to colourful locations to like Cartagena and Budapest. He’s accompanied by an old military pilot buddy (Benedict Wong) and a younger female agent named Danny, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Winstead has also done some fine performances (Smashed, TV’s Fargo) but this isn’t one of them. Neither a romantic interest nor a leading participant, she does a lot of smiling and eye-crinkling and looking impressed at Brogan’s avuncular flirting.
As the movie evolves it seems her real part is to be a sort of virtual mother for clone Henry, whose name is Junior. Junior’s virtual father (the one who gave him the name “Junior”) is the villain Clay Verris, played by the estimable English actor Clive Owen, though sounding flatly American and colourless.
Verris is in charge of the secret cloning program to mass produce clone soldiers but he’s only created one from Brogan’s DNA, who he has raised as his own son. Now for some reason, Varris needs Junior to wipe out Brogan before he can start creating his clone army. The motive is vague but he seems to have a combination of man-crush and envy toward Brogan: “It’s like he’s the son of both of us,” says Varris with a preening evil-guy pride. Sigmund Freud would be tearing his beard out.
The concept for Gemini Man has been in the works since 1997, the year of John Woo’s conceptually related Face/Off and, despite the high-tech innovations, feels exhumed from a pre-millennium time capsule. Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012), for example, executed a similar idea with more finesse and wit.
As the movie flips through familiar Bourne/Bond tropes, the dialogue by David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke, feels clichéd to the point of parody, with lines like “It’s like The Hindenburg crashed into The Titanic!” Or, “I think I know why he’s as good as you. He is you!” Only, let’s be honest, not as good.
There are a couple of showcase action scenes here — a motorcycle race through Cartagena, a mano-a-mano fight in a skull-walled catacomb in Budapest. But the much-vaunted high-speed frame rate, rather than enhancing realism, smudges it into something that looks like video game animation, without the fun of pushing the video game buttons.
Gemini Man. Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke. Starring Will Smith, Will Smith’s digital younger self, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen and Benedict Wong. Opens wide October 11.