Darren Lemke sold his screenplay for “Gemini Man” back in 1997, and it has been cropping up in articles about great unmade films ever since. Unfortunately, the “Gemini Man” that Ang Lee has finally made has such risible dialogue, such perfunctory characterization, and such rudimentary international-espionage plotting that viewers will soon stop asking why it took so long to go into production, and start asking why it went into production at all.
Not that Lemke should shoulder all of the blame: Over the last two decades, his sci-fi story of a government assassin being hunted by his own younger clone has been revised extensively, and David Benioff and Billy Ray are also credited as screenwriters. Whatever adjustments were made to the screenplay along the way, they can’t have been improvements.
The main effect of the lengthy gestation is that “Gemini Man” now seems fatally dated and derivative. In the years since Lemke drafted his screenplay, “The Bourne Identity” and its imitators have featured countless agents being betrayed and hounded by their own handlers. “Captain America” and its sequels have covered the terrain of genetically-engineered super-soldiers. We have even had older and younger incarnations of the same killer in Rian Johnson’s “Looper.” “Gemini Man” is significantly less exciting than any of these films.
Its stupidity is established in the opening minutes, when Will Smith’s sniper-supreme Henry Brogan is assigned by the “Defense Intelligence Agency” to bump off a Russian terrorist. He does so by lying on a sunny hillside in Belgium and shooting his target through the window of a passing express train. Wouldn’t it have been easier to slip some polonium into the guy’s coffee? And do assassins normally set up their high-powered rifles in open country in broad daylight?
The ludicrousness gets even more apparent a few minutes later when Henry mentions to a stranger that (foreshadowing alert!) he is “deathly allergic to bees.” Pro tip: Hitmen who are allergic to bees should, whenever possible, avoid sprawling in meadows.
This absurd sequence isn’t a one-off. “Gemini Man” is a film in which secret agents throw grenades around in tourist hot spots, and the people hiding from those secret agents sit outside on city-center balconies while wearing fluffy white dressing gowns. If Dwayne Johnson or Jason Statham were playing “Gemini Man” for laughs, it might have been a camp treat. But Lee takes his comic-book yarn so seriously that the laughs it does prompt are accidental.
After the luckily bee-less hit, Henry decides to retire, and he informs his DIA boss (“Turn”‘s Ralph Brown, one of several English actors putting on gruff American voices) in a scene most notable for how conspicuous the logos are on the two men’s beer and soda bottles. The DIA’s response is to try to retire Henry in a more permanent fashion but, several clumsy failed attempts later, it becomes obvious that the only man who has a chance against him is Henry’s clone Junior, created by Henry’s mentor Clay (Clive Owen) about 25 years earlier. But considering that this big twist is given away by the film’s poster and trailers, there is an absurdly long wait until Junior joins the party.
In the meantime, there is lots of B-movie dialogue between Henry and his sidekicks: another DIA agent (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ex-agent (Douglas Hodge, “Catastrophe”), and a pilot (Benedict Wong) who can rustle up a Gulfstream jet at a moment’s notice. (Don’t ask how.) This dialogue ranges from the thuddingly expository to the hilariously daft. It’s a close call, but the funniest line is probably, “Nelson Mandela couldn’t kill a man on a moving train from two kilometers away.”
When Junior does eventually turn up, there is some arbitrary globe-trotting, which appears to have been motivated more by tax breaks than by narrative exigency. Then “Gemini Man” gets onto what we should refer to as a “battle of Wills.” Lee delivers some elaborate parkour chases and fight scenes which recall “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” without matching it. What Lee doesn’t deliver is a sense of how mind-blowing it would be to discover that you are a clone or that you are talking to one.
Partly, this is the fault of the script’s offhand treatment of its central high concept, and partly it’s the fault of Smith’s pair of dull performances. Both Henry and Junior are po-faced bores, and their one-note glumness robs the premise of much of its power. It’s difficult to care that one man is a carbon copy of the other when neither of them seems especially human, anyway.
Lee was patently less interested in the whys and wherefores of cloning than he was in other technological advances. Principally, there is the digital de-aging which allows Smith to look like his current grey-templed self and also like the goofy youth he was on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” The gimmick works well enough, in that Junior doesn’t seem much more fake than anything else in “Gemini Man,” so that’s something.
The other innovation is the ultra-fast frame-rate (60 frames per second at the screening I attended), which gives the images a painfully sharp clarity reminiscent of Lee’s last film, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” Maybe, in years to come, we will get used to that clarity, just as audiences got used to the switch from black-and-white to color. But at the moment it leaves much of “Gemini Man” looking distractingly like behind-the-scenes footage. As a more thoughtful cloning thriller might have said, just because you have the technology to do something doesn’t mean that you should use it.