Gemini Man review: Will Smith can’t save this tedious thriller from his deepfake younger self

Ed Power
Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a scene from Ang Lee's Gemini Man - © 2019 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Dir: Ang Lee. Cast: Will Smith, Clive Owen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong, Douglas Hodge, Theodora Miranne, Linda Emond, Ralph Brown. 12A cert, 117 mins

Hollywood has always been obsessed with youth and vitality, but technology has given it the means to take its fixation to the next level. In 2015, Marvel’s Ant-Man whisked Michael Douglas back to his Fatal Attraction prime. The same dark magic will be worked on Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming The Irishman. To de-age is all the rage.

Given the millions that Netflix has reportedly lavished on Scorsese’s gangster epic, it’ll hope to do a better job with 76-year-old De Niro than Gemini Man has with 51-year-old Will Smith. Ang Lee’s action film, preposterous yet also somehow dreary, casts the actor as a super-assassin in a duel to the death with a cloned version of his twenty-something self. It’s Will the Weary versus the Fake Prince of Bel-Air. 

Gemini Man is something of a relic itself, having languished for decades in development purgatory. Tony Scott and Curtis Hanson were among the directors linked with the script as far back as the mid-1990s. The stars attached to Smith’s part, meanwhile, read like the call-sheet from a 1997 Oscars issue of Vanity Fair. Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood were all, at one point or another, in the running. 

One disappointment is that Gemini Man isn’t based on the 1976 TV show of the same name, about a spy who made himself invisible by fiddling with his watch. Visibility is, in fact, the issue for black-ops assassin Henry Brogan (Smith). He literally knows where all the bodies are buried, yet naïvely announces to his superior that he’s retiring with immediate effect. Quicker than you can rap the opening verse of Boom! Shake The Room, he’s been earmarked by shady spy boss Clayton Varris (Clive Owen) as a loose end that needs tying up. 

But who do you send to kill the best assassin in the business? Varris has the answer, having sneakily taken some of Brogan’s DNA 23 years ago and raised the resulting chip off the old killbot as his own son. With “Junior” in pursuit, Brogan is soon fleeing for his life. He’s accompanied by fellow agent Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who’s low-level glamorous, and loyal sidekick Baron (Benedict Wong).

Colombia and Hungary are among the vaguely cinematic locations they visit while trying to stay one step ahead of Henry 2.0. It’s just as well the backdrops are pretty; the film’s recreation of 23-year-old Will Smith is nothing to write home about. In direct sunlight, his features ripple with uncanny dinks and crevices. Even in the dark, it looks as though his face is about to melt. He certainly doesn’t bear any resemblance to the motor-mouthed Smith of Bad Boys and Independence Day. 

The action sequences are equally unconvincing. A motorbike chase through Colombian back-alleys can only moderately raise the pulse. From there, it’s one generic shoot-out after another. You can’t help wonder whether Lee, director of Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi, is all that invested in this pow-wow stuff.  

As the villain, meanwhile, Owen strokes his handlebar with gusto. On the other hand, in one jarring scene his American accent disintegrates, and he sounds as though he’s auditioning to play a postman on EastEnders. A bigger distraction is the speed of 120 frames per second at which Lee has opted to shoot. This gives the action a colour-saturated and hyper-fake quality. Think of the notorious “motion smoothing” TV effect – yes, the one Hollywood constantly grumbles about – but on steroids. 

Lee also took flack over the use of a high frame-rate in his previous film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. That  perceived Oscar contender failed to achieve lift-off. Gemini Man has far humbler ambitions: to restore Will Smith’s prominence as a leading man after disappointments such as Concussion and Collateral Beauty

Alas, the film’s man-versus-clone script – co-written by Game of Thrones’s David Benioff – isn’t half as ridiculous as it needs to be. (Twenty years ago, Face/Off had a hoot with a similar premise.) Those wonky de-aging effects and distracting frame-rate serve as trip-wires too. But what ultimately hobbles Gemini Man, more than all of that, is its refusal to buy into its own ludicrousness. It’s a slab of silliness that commits a terrible error: it takes itself seriously.