Darren Lemke’s concept for Gemini Man has been knocking around Hollywood since 1997, with everyone from Harrison Ford to Sean Connery being linked to the leading role(s). Now, the flick has finally come together with Will Smith starring and Ang Lee directing, and the Life Of Pi helmsman has made the most of modern technology to put this idea on the big screen. The results are mixed, but the fact this film exists at all is worth celebrating, especially after all that time in development hell.
At the heart of the adventure is Smith’s Henry Brogan, an assassin on the verge of retirement who is beginning to feel remorse about his life of violence. Henry has been struggling to look at himself in the mirror of late, which adds a sense of emotional importance to the outlandish sci-fi event that’s about to occur: the mirror comes to him, with Henry being forced into conflict with a young clone of himself. Sent to kill his older self by the government that Henry has grown to distrust, this ‘Junior’ version of the character is the perfect sparring partner for the original.
Sadly, some of their fights are quite easy to get lost in – shaky cam and dimly lit rooms don’t make a great combination, and the high frame rate shooting style also gets a bit distracting at times – but there is one standout sequence in which a motorbike chase evolves into a chopper-enhanced fistfight. Ang Lee’s decision to shoot in native 3D stands out for good reasons in this scene, with the enhanced depth-of-field adding extra-thrilling feelings to the tight alleyways and high-speed movements. At other times, though, the 3D feels utterly superfluous and the 100fps frame rate makes dialogue scenes look more like home video or old TV movies than a proper blockbuster event.
Of course, the main visual element that we should be talking about is the clone. Lee and the team at Weta Digital have done their best to build a bridge over the uncanny valley here, reconstructing the 23-year-old Smith from scratch in the digital realm. Much like the creatures in the recent The Lion King remake, the younger Smith is a 100% digital creation, although Smith did provide the performance capture (in the same way that Andy Serkis provides a visual reference for his apes, Gollums and other CGI characters). There are times when you totally buy into this digital character as a real person, but there are also moments when he stands out too much, appearing like a character from a video game that’s been dropped into a live-action scene. A bit like the digital Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One, the young Will Smith often looks great in reflections, or in darkness, or through smoke – but when you see him in broad daylight for a close-up, it’s easier to spot the fakeness.
A great story might help to distract viewers from the visual niggles, but sadly Gemini Man doesn’t have one of those. It’s a fairly straightforward tale from start to finish, and it has a surprising amount of padding for a film that’s running time that clocks in at under two hours. Did there need to be three different faces for the villainous Gemini organisation, or two separate scenes in which the core cast sit in a private jet on their way from one location to the next? And although Ang Lee brought his unique sensibilities to the action (look out for some Wuxia-infused moments), his thoughtful side seems to be missing – the script steers clear of tackling heavy ideas such as nature versus nurture. For a film with this many years of development behind it, you still get a sense that a few more redrafts might’ve helped.
Thankfully, there are lots of likeable people in the cast that give you things to focus on between the clone fights: Doctor Strange alum Benedict Wong plays Smith’s BFF from back in the day, and future Birds Of Prey star Mary Elizabeth Winstead portrays a very capable agent that gets caught up in Henry’s drama – both actors bring their usual charms, albeit with a slightly muted feeling like they’re trying not to pull focus. Only Clive Owen, as the big boss of Gemini, seems to have gotten the memo that this is a very 90s movie that was at one point going to star Nicolas Cage – channelling something of the absent Face/Off star, Owen chews any scenery he can get his mitts on and flipflops repeatedly between snarling villain and wannabe-father-figure to Junior.
Speaking of Junior, although he doesn’t always look fully real (at one point he licks an ice cream and it is just weird), there is something quite special about what he represents: a chance for Will Smith to portray a young man that isn’t a fresh prince, a man in black or some other sort of cool dude. Unlike the adult Henry (a classic Will Smith hero with shades of Deadshot from Suicide Squad), Junior is shy, awkward and unsure of himself – the sort of character that young Will Smith, in real life, never got the chance to play in a big blockbuster movie. He’s often hampered by naff dialogue, with Henry and Junior taking the time to overtly explain the themes of the movie to each other, but this is still an emotional young Will Smith performance that we never would’ve been able to see if it wasn’t for mind-bending technological advances.
This is far from a perfect movie, then, but there are still plenty of reasons to be happy it exists. After 20 years in development hell, Gemini Man is ready to strut into cinemas boasting one great action scene, some cheesy Clive Owen fun and a strong emotional performance from a digital version of 23-year-old Will Smith. It won’t be remembered as a classic, but we’re glad Gemini Man finally got made.
Gemini Man hits UK cinemas on 11 October.