It is the age old question, just because we >can< so something, does that automatically mean that we should? In the case of pitting an older Will Smith against a younger Will Smith courtesy of the slick visual effects in GEMINI MAN, the answer is a resounding no. Make that NO. The visual trickery that youthens up the 50-ish Smith into his 20-ish self is impressive, but the film not so much.
What we have here is a talky action flick with little of the fun and none of the pizazz as ace government assassin Henry (Smith) decides to retire from the DIA. Not CIA. DIA. As sometimes happens, per his avuncular handler (Ralph Brown), Henry has acquired a conscience, even though the people he has been taking out richly deserve their doom. Unfortunately for Henry, once retired, a friend tips him off that his handlers may not have always been quite as honest with him as they should have been. Further unfortunately, the DIA with its eyes in the sky, knows all about the tipping, and thus begins the agency’s attempts to kill Henry because of what he may or may not know. Maybe it’s just company policy. It’s not made abundantly clear.
The rest of the film is Henry jetting around the world (Budapest, Cartagena, Georgia) in order to have lengthy conversations that are toxically expositional and engage in combat that sometimes involves guns, sometimes motorcycles, sometimes knives. Why none of the conversations could have been done over burner phones is never adequately explained and so we are left to surmise, correctly, that Budapest makes for a compelling setting, which it does. Plus hanging up on someone is less dramatic than attempting to reduces them to hash.
When it is not belaboring its many expositional points with those excruciating conversations, it is doing its very best to convince us that his plot is something other than inane. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as Danny, the DIA agent sent to surveille the retired Henry, accepts a date with him after he accuses her of spying on him in a creepy stalker way, and then owns up that he’s right. Because that’s what a trained agent would do. Just as the agency only has one suit that is capable of repelling armor-piercing bullets, so that Henry and Danny can, and without any armor at all, take out squads of assassins sent to terminate them with their automatic weapons. Just as the residents of a sleepy morning street in Cartagena don’t much notice when combatants run riot through its brightly painted buildings with those automatic weapons ablaze.
We are meant to believe that Henry’s clone, called Junior by his doting villain-of-the-piece adoptive father (Clive Owen), is Henry but better. Yet in their protracted confrontations, one sees no evidence of this, even if Junior’s skills with using a ci-mentioned motorcycle as an assault weapon are impressive.
DIrector Ang Lee is a master of the visual medium that is cinema. Yet for all the lovely shots of bodies floating in a moonlit ocean, or the two Smiths duking it out in a crypt lined floor to ceiling with neatly stacked human bones, he is unable to get across what may be the more metaphysical aspects of the story. There is something intriguing about being chased by one’s younger self with extreme prejudice, and certainly the constant references to ghosts is apt, but a greater allegory about the light and dark places in the human soul, the dangers of living up to a father’s twisted expectations, or the downside of playing God with Mother Nature, never comes together. Inklings notwithstanding. Blatant symbolism and obvious cultural comment notwithstanding, too. We are treated at one point to the villain of the piece speechifying in front of a flock of American flags conveniently arranged him about his plans to save the world using carnage but without breaking even one mother’s heart. All that’s missing is a similarly and conveniently placed apple pie.
The performers give their all. Winstead is feisty but not cutesy as the tough, ambitious agent with no fear of a packaged food’s expiration date. She’s never reduced to eye candy, and kudos for that. Smith, in his dual role verges on histrionic at times, but pulls back just enough and just in time. Owen is sufficiently slick in an oozy, oily way, and Benedict Wong as Henry’s aviator pal provides the comic relief, such as it is.
GEMINI MAN asks us to make many heart-stopping leaps of logic as it wends its languid way to a conclusion that redefines the word “cliche”. For all its pontificating about the pros and cons of fear, it provokes not a prickling of concern about the world at large, but rather a yawn.