‘Gemini Man’ Review: That Assassin Looks a Lot Like Will Smith

I’m a little worried that the premise of “Gemini Man,” which is the most interesting thing about it, might also count as a spoiler. So if you don’t want to know anything about this movie other than that Will Smith plays a super-lethal military assassin hunted by nefarious forces in his own government — which is too much of a cliché to count as a spoiler — then maybe you should move along. Or just watch the trailer, declare the whole thing spoiled, and go about your day.

Because what places this globe-trotting action caper, directed by Ang Lee, just a little bit above “utterly forgettable” is the fact that Smith plays more than one assassin. The first one is Henry Brogan, a sniper who has decided to retire after killing dozens of bad guys over the years. Not so fast, Henry! As soon as he settles down in his house on the Georgia coast, gunmen start showing up to terminate his pension. When he gets to Colombia, another would-be killer shows up, but this one — get ready! — is Henry’s own clone.

Henry 2.0 is called Junior, and he is also played by Will Smith. He was cultivated by Henry’s former boss, Clay Verris (Clive Owen), a nasty bureaucrat with good taste in art. Junior is 25 years younger than his — original? donor? template? tissue sample? — an effect that has been achieved via digital de-aging, the cinematic trend of 2019. Various techniques to shave off the years were used on Samuel L. Jackson in “Captain Marvel” and on Robert De Niro in “The Irishman.” There is something both unnerving and poignant about seeing these familiar faces turned into younger versions of themselves, because they don’t quite recapture the smooth-faced stars we remember. Junior doesn’t look like the Will Smith of 25 years ago as much as he looks like a 25-year-old who is really, really tired of everyone telling him how much he looks like Will Smith.

Junior tries to beat Henry to death with a motorcycle in Cartagena. Later on they trade punches in Budapest. Since a globe-trotting assassin needs someone to banter with and care about, Henry acquires two sidekicks, a younger (but not cloned) operative (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a grizzled veteran (Benedict Wong). As the three of them uncover the buried secrets about Junior’s background and Verris’s treachery, some philosophical and practical questions arise about how Henry should relate to Junior. Is he a second dad? A big brother? A grouchy uncle? How well does he know the kid, anyway?

The answers, tucked into a sludgy script by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, will not surprise you. What might surprise you, and not happily, is the way “Gemini Man” looks, thanks to Lee’s insistence on using the high-frame-rate 3-D format that he first tried out in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The effect is like watching a “Jason Bourne” dinner-theater production in the grip of a migraine. The performances feel slow and deliberate, and the hyper-clarity of the images undermines realism rather than enhancing it.

Everything is either too bright or too dim. Action sequences rattle on in murky twilight, and actual places look like cartoons. It takes some work to make Budapest and Cartagena look like generic video-game backdrops, but Lee succeeds. Whatever mystery, intrigue or charm might have percolated in the story and the performances is bleached away by the soulless literalism of the pictures.

The partial exception, as I’ve suggested, can be found in Smith’s faces, which haunt each other. The idea of confronting an unknown second self is full of rich, uncanny potential — there’s a literary tradition going back at least to Edgar Allan Poe — but “Gemini Man” squanders it, along with what might have been two interesting performances.

Gemini Man

Rated PG-13. Dudes fighting, and they might even be the same dude! Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes.

Gemini Man

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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott

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