It seems “ambitious” is the go-to word for films that make some sort of technological breakthrough, yet by all other accounts are extremely mediocre. Ambitious is the critical kiss of death.
In 2009, “Avatar” was incredibly ambitious, completely transforming the 3D movie-going experience and breaking all sorts of box office records. But when you took off the 3D glasses, in all honesty, it was just another movie repeating a story that’s already been told.
Just this summer, “The Lion King” was dubbed both “ambitious” and “visually stunning” for its pseudo-live action digital recreation of the cartoon classic. But most people agreed it really wasn’t all that good.
It’s safe to say director Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” is ambitious, too.
The Will Smith-led spy thriller features a modern-day Smith facing off against a younger version of himself. Here’s the kicker: it’s not Smith acting across from a look-a-like as his youthful counterpart, Smith is actually playing both roles, only the younger version is being digitally de-aged. Think of it like “The Parent Trap,” only Hallie is way older than Annie. And they’re trying to kill each other. You get the picture.
So what could go wrong? It’s a two-time Oscar-winning director teaming up with one of Hollywood’s most lovable leading men. Well, it turns out the answer is quite a bit.
After over 20 years of service in the fictional Defense Intelligence Agency, the kills are finally catching up to super soldier Henry Brogan (Smith) and beginning to haunt him. Brogan decides to call it quits, retiring from the special forces team and trading in his sniper rifle for a fishing rod. Only, stepping away from a team of trained killers isn’t as easy as it sounds – especially when you know as much as Brogan does.
Brogan’s retirement is interrupted before it really even begins once DIA operative Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) shows up to keep an eye on him. An old friend swings by and warns Brogan that the people he’s been sent to kill all these years may not really be the bad guys after all, but before Brogan can get any more information, his old buddy ends up mysteriously murdered. Brogan knows he’s next on the chopping block, and teams up with Zakarweski to find out the truth.
It turns out, Brogan’s former employer, Clay Verris (Clive Owen) has set out to create a genetically modified army of assassins, and it all starts with Junior (Smith, again), a younger clone of Brogan himself.
In concept, it’s an elaborate premise – part “Jason Bourne,” part “Looper,” and honestly, a little bit “Jurassic World” – and it sounds almost crazy enough to work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
Lee’s filmography, which can only be described as eclectic, touches nearly every genre, from martial arts to superhero adventures and adaptations of literary dramas and romances. As wide ranging as his body of work may be, “Gemini Man” doesn’t really fit in anywhere, but it’s not necessarily his fault. As tempting as the promise of revolutionary visual effects may be, at a certain point you have to call a spade a spade.
The majority of “Gemini Man“’s problems stem from its writing, led by former “Game of Thrones” showrunner David Benioff. What appears to be a promising, yet convoluted, narrative ends up as a typical, run of the mill spy thriller.
“Gemini Man” follows all of the basic genre tropes: a spy learns compromising information, said spy is framed as a rogue agent and targeted, the spy then has to flee across multiple countries to find the truth. There’s a reason those plot points have managed to stick around for so long – it’s because they work. Some action flicks take those moments and elevate them, but “Gemini Man” pairs them with weak dialogue and basic characters who never break their stereotypical molds.
The film’s script lacks depth and any inkling of emotional impact. As much as Smith and Winstead may strain to fake a bit of onscreen chemistry, it’s hard to blame them after examining what they have to work with. The dialogue is riddled with cliches, and simply put, it’s just not written the way real people talk, which makes it difficult to feel any sort of connection to such inauthentic characters.
As for the visual innovation that’s supposedly going to change filmmaking forever, it’s severely underwhelming. In the first sequence to feature the digitally-altered version of Smith, he looks more like a video game character than anything else. The reveal even garnered a few laughs in the theater. However, the de-aging technology did get better as the film progressed. In wide shots, it truly looked like a young Will Smith dashing across the screen, but any time the camera focused in on a close up shot of the clone, the footage could have been swapped out with any Playstation or Xbox game.
As dull as the film’s script may be, a spy thriller should at least have some enjoyable action sequences, right? There’s certainly plenty of action to go around, and the choreography is pretty solid, but it’s often difficult to follow due to extreme closeups and an absurd amount of shaky cam footage. In one motorcycle chase scene, the camera switched angles so many times it was clear that Smith wouldn’t be the only one with whiplash after that joyride.
There’s a line early in “Gemini Man” where a character likens something unpleasant to watching the Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic. In the context of the film, the comparison doesn’t work, but when it comes to describing the film, it’s perfect.
Star Rating: 1.5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.