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Facing down your past isn’t always the easiest thing to do; especially in Hollywood. While the industry still rewards innovation, it also treats the world of nostalgia quite well at the same time. Which brings us to how Gemini Man, a script that’s been kicking around for the past 20 years or so, has come to represent the crossroads of a classic Will Smith-style starring vehicle, and another showcase for director Ang Lee’s brand of technical marvels. Unfortunately, one side is served better than the other, leaving the entire film out of balance.
Gemini Man pits Henry (Will Smith) against Junior (Smith again, with Victor Hugo standing in as his on-set reference actor), a genetic clone created from his DNA 25 years ago by his shady ex-commanding officer (Clive Owen). Touted as a man with all of Henry's strengths, yet none of his emotional baggage, Junior is on the clock to kill his target after he decides to retire as a triggerman for the government. Which leads Henry to go on the run with friends old (Benedict Wong) and new (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
In the beginning, Gemini Man starts to take on the form of a conspiracy thriller that feels very much in the vein of the Bourne franchise. Smith’s Henry starts unveiling something bigger than him when he decides to retire, and soon enough loose ends are being tied up in clandestine raids and easily covered deaths. Should the movie have continued down this path, we could have had the best “assassin with a conscience” adventure since 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, with Smith very easily occupying the role of an unwitting Treadstone operative.
But eventually, the main thrust of Gemini Man’s more marketable premise has to kick in, which is where the younger Junior pops up and starts to ruin Henry’s life in retirement. It’s here that Gemini Man is supposed to really sell you, as the big sticking point of Ang Lee’s film is in how realistic the CGI constructed Junior looks, not only when compared to the highlights of Will Smith’s career, but also when compared to the man himself. This is a daunting visual hook on which to hang a project, but Lee’s technical prowess certainly shines in both the way the character of Junior is executed, and also in the film’s 120-frames-per-second exhibition.
While it’s not a perfect product, as there are moments where Gemini Man’s effects don’t hold up, the creation of a wholly digital young Will Smith does make for an impressive feat when it’s at its best. It also creates an amazing acting challenge for Smith, who brings his usual gravitas not only to the embattled Junior, but the worn and weary Henry.
As creative as the technical side of Gemini Man’s central duality is, it wouldn’t have been as effective if it wasn’t for the acting that Smith, and his younger body double Victor Hugo, puts in on both sides.
Performances only go so far in the world of Gemini Man, however, and even with a cast of talented supporting actors, the script’s obvious flaws are too huge to ever truly go away. With the curse of development hell leading to many hands being involved in various rewrites over the film’s 20 year history, the story at the heart of the movie never really gets to fully take root.
We barely get to know Will Smith’s Henry before he’s ready to abruptly retire, or settle into the backstory of his relationship with Clive Owen’s baddie, Clay Varis. But it’s not too long until Varis’s organization, Gemini, is mentioned as if it’s something we should just know is bad on the outside.
For a paramilitary force that’s dabbling in cloning, has been connected to various government sanctioned hits, and seems to always know where Henry is going at all times, it’s a pretty thinly developed adversary that we’re asked to follow, or even root against, in Gemini Man.
It’s the underdevelopment of the Gemini Man script that also robs co-stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong of some time to shine, as their limited chemistry with Will Smith works exceedingly well. Were this a classic Smith vehicle, especially under the auspices of this film’s producer Jerry Bruckheimer, there would have been some more time to really see this group working at its best.
We still get to see some sparks fly between the trio. Not only is Wong allowed to inject some much needed comic relief into the picture, but Winstead seems primed on a renaissance as an action lead, as she gets to kick some serious ass in this film. It also helps that Smith and Winstead have a hell of a lot of platonic chemistry together in the early acts, as they go from frenemies to compatriots in a quick, but effective, transition. If only the script had let either of their characters cash in a little more on those gifts.
Instead, what Gemini Man represents is a film that’s crossed the finish line, only to look back at what it could have been and sigh. While Ang Lee’s technical mastery is something you need to see to believe, the story that sits behind the stunning visuals is a little hollow and dated. Gemini Man is the ultimate catch-22. It's a story that would have worked so much better when it started development in 1997, but now includes current-era visual effects that best serve the spectacle Gemini Man sets out to achieve. In between those two lanes is where this movie rides, allowing itself to have some impressive moments of dazzling showmanship and intriguing action, but with very little message behind it.