Ang Lee is one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world. His films have garnered a total of 12 Academy Awards from 38 nominations, including two wins for himself as Best Director. He’s been one of the greatest crossover auteurs in the industry, wowing audiences with foreign films (The Wedding Banquet, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) from his days in Hong Kong as well as domestically (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi). Through it all, he’s basically only had one real misfire, the 2003 false start to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hulk. Basically, the man has earned himself infinite mulligans due to the tremendous work he’s put out over the years.
This is a good thing, as he’ll need to cash in one of them for his latest feature, Gemini Man, a wholly uninspired action flick which has a couple of interesting set pieces, but otherwise squanders an interesting premise and delivers largely perfunctory performances from all but two of the actors.
The film is a textbook example of how not to coordinate the creative vision of a movie with its marketing strategy. The central premise of the film is that Henry Brogan (Will Smith), a retired assassin, must fight with a younger clone of himself as his former superiors target him for termination. Within the movie itself, the reveal of “Junior” as his clone takes quite some time. It’s not until after several dodged bullets and some well-choreographed fighting that we see Junior’s face, and the weight of the titular Gemini Project becomes fully realized.
This makes for a pretty decent slow burn in a lot of cases. The buildup of the end of Henry’s career leading to a failed attempt at a hit against him to the introduction of this fearless super soldier who also has his face would be super compelling in most situations, and normally I’d applaud Ang Lee for taking his time and establishing the characters before we got into the meat of this particular plot.
The problem is, this film has been heavily advertised for the last six months. I’ve seen the trailer literally dozens of times between theatres and TV. We all know Will Smith is going to fight his clone long before we even step foot inside the auditorium and sit down. So instead of a tense escalation leading to a shocking twist, it felt more like 20 minutes of filler with minor details that ultimately don’t matter, waiting for the movie to just get to the point already. I’m not saying that films should be made with a marketing strategy in mind; far from it actually. Hell, bottom line marketing is half the problem with Hollywood in general these days. I’m saying the marketing campaign itself should have done more to obfuscate the central conflict so that it could carry some kind of suspenseful weight, or that once they went all-in on revealing the central conceit, the film should have been re-edited so that we didn’t have wait an interminable amount of time for things to kick into gear.
The actual plot is sort of boiler plate for an action film. One might even call it a “clone” of better action fare. Henry is the greatest sniper there is, as demonstrated in the opening sequence where he takes out a terrorist threat sitting on a train, but not until the last possible second because he still has the humanity/morality to hold back when a small child moves into the line of sight and chats up the target. Never mind the lack of moral quandary when they decide they can’t physically harm the girl but it’s totally okay to emotionally scar her for life by letting her watch a guy’s head explode from a sniper’s bullet, Henry’s totally got a code.
Upon his retirement, he meets a young woman named Dani (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who he instantly deduces has been placed at the marina near his Georgia home by his former bosses to monitor him. Out on his boat, he meets an old informant (Douglas Hodge), who surprise surprise, tells him that his last kill was actually an innocent man, his file altered so that Henry would think he was a terrorist, when he was really a loose end of the Gemini Project, looking to escape after the horrors his research led to. And now that Henry knows the truth, he too is a loose end. Cue the Defense Intelligence Agency (somehow a real organization within the US Government and not a cheap knockoff of the CIA), led by generic evil-looking people in suits Janet Lassiter (Linda Edmond) and Clay Varris (Clive Owen) sending a squad of goons to take him out, and when that fails, Junior, raised by Varris as his own son after being cloned from Henry’s DNA at the Gemini Project. Henry and Dani flee to South America where another old friend, Baron (Benedict Wong), has gone off the grid since his own retirement, and agrees to help them. A small worldwide chase ensues until Henry decides he has to confront Junior in hopes of turning him to his side, leading to a final sequence where the results are highly predictable.
As far as the performances go, Smith does a fine enough job in his “current” form, and hams it up a bit as Junior. He’s the latest middle-aged actor to undergo de-aging CGI technology to have a younger version of himself, and at this point, the practice needs to just die. Not only are hard-working makeup artists being put out of work because of it, but at best, every time it’s been used it just renders beloved actors into the Uncanny Valley, which is unsettling and trite. Benedict Wong serves as some much-needed comic relief throughout the movie as well, his one-liners a very welcome respite from the bullshit moral posturing throughout the movie. Everyone else is phoning it in so much that the most compelling performances they give are literally when they’re talking on the phone.
Being a visionary director, Ang Lee is able to polish this turd a few times. The fight choreography is above average throughout. There’s also a motorcycle chase sequence fairly early on that’s about the best you’ll see this side of a Mission: Impossible movie, with the camera switching from first to third person perspectives at just the right moment. The sound design is also pretty superlative, as clandestine operations require a precise control of sound levels in certain moments.
Apart from all that, though, this movie gets a resounding “meh” from me. It wasn’t terrible, but given the potential of the premise, the whole thing felt like a missed opportunity, promoting a piece of movie-making technology that already needs to be retired in lieu of a compelling story. Will Smith does fine with the material, but for the most part, this is just a thing that happens, a standard-issue copy/paste action film where there just happens to be a clone. This is a rare box office flop for Smith, and an even rarer creative misfire for Ang Lee. I’m sure they’ll both bounce back.
But for the future, let this utterly interchangeable action movie serve as a cautionary tale for studios going forward. If you spend so much money on advertising, to the point that you dilute your own product, causing it to sink at the box office, maybe rethink your strategies. Maybe spend more money on making the movie high quality than on trying to trick people into seeing a dud. Or even better, don’t green light shitty movies in the first place.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What would you do if you met your own clone? Why does every “retired” government agent have to be the best there ever was? Can’t someone who was merely adequate at their job get hunted down for once? Let me know!