Will Smith is a career hitman who discovers retirement from a shady government agency doesn’t mean sipping mai tais and relaxing on the beach in Gemini Man, a slick and mostly first-rate action thriller from slumming director Ang Lee that tries and tries but just can’t quite overcome its generic plotting.
The script for Gemini Man has been kicking around since 1997 and passed through a number of high-profile directors and stars, but it feels even older. Coincidentally, I recently caught the 1973 thriller Scorpio, starring Burt Lancaster as a CIA assassin hunted down by his replacement (Alain Delon) upon retirement. It is almost the same exact movie as Gemini Man, beat for beat, nearly every step of the way. And it’s not the only feature in the past 50 years to feature this same storyline.
But there’s one unique twist to Gemini Man: Will Smith plays both Henry Brogan, the hitman about to retire, as well as “Junior”, the hitman sent to snuff him out and take his place. Junior, you see, is Brogan’s clone, 25 years younger than the original, created by and raised by Clay Varris (Clive Owen) for this exact purpose.
Versions of Gemini Man set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger or Harrison Ford never came to pass because the technology of creating a younger version of the star had yet to be perfected in the late 1990s. Now, however, the tech is there, and this Gemini Man presents a flawless version of a de-aged Bad Boys/Independence Day-era Will Smith that could genuinely fool most audiences if passed along as authentic footage from the mid-1990s.
Gemini Man’s young Will Smith is only missing that trademark Fresh Prince-era charm, but playing a stoic clone with no personality might do that to a performance.
It’s the first time I can recall being fully convinced by these kinds of cinematic de-aging techniques – even Marvel, in recent films, failed to really pull it off in brief sequences – and Gemini Man keeps it up for the entire film, letting Smith’s Junior share center stage and develop a real character as we marvel at the special effects.
A behind-the-scenes documentary detailing how Smith and the filmmakers were able to accomplish this feat would be fascinating to watch. The actual experience of sitting through Gemini Man’s paint-by-numbers story, meanwhile, is mostly a snooze.
But director Lee keeps it moving fast enough to not entirely lose his audience, and fits in some snazzy action highlights including a motorcycle chase in Cartagena and some fisticuffs in the skeleton-lined crypts beneath Budapest. Cinematography by Dion Beebe throughout the globetrotting locales is lush and first-rate.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead portrays generic love interest, a fellow government agent who winds up on Henry’s side. While the script lets her in on the action, its keep her far from the story: remove the character and you have the same movie. Scenes between the younger Smith and Owen’s father figure, meanwhile, provide some deeper thematic material.
While Gemini Man was shot in 120fps, like Lee’s last film Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, it only screened in a handful of versions at the higher framerate stateside and none here in Prague. That’s a real shame, as the technology deserves more exposure: the future of cinema lies in greater frame rates, which more accurately represent how we naturally see, and not higher resolutions.
With a script now credited to Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) along with original scribe Darren Lemke, Gemini Man is likely to be lost in cinema history as the generic assassin action movie that lies at the heart of its screenplay. But it might go down with one claim to fame: this is the first time digital de-aging technology has been utilized to this extent, and the most convincing use of it to date.