The world was enthralled in 1996 when Scottish scientists displayed Dolly, a female sheep, the first cloned mammal in history – named for Dolly Parton in an indelicate gesture to the mammary gland from which she was cloned. The sheep and its genesis made it clear that everyone needed to become familiar with the abbreviation DNA, and the complex moral questions arising from the cloning procedure shifted from science fiction to the laboratory. Since then, we’ve become accustomed to DNA in everyday life, from police series on television to genealogy testing.
“Gemini Man,” currently in wide release, is out to reignite the old buzz, and not by chance. The script, about an assassin and his young clone, was written in 1997, when the subject was still hot. The writer was Darren Lemke (“Shazam!”), and Disney Studios was quick to purchase the rights; director Tony Scott expressed a willingness to make the film. However, the project was eventually shelved when it proved impossible to devise the required visual effects. Since then, the script was resurrected and buried repeatedly. A long list of directors and stars – from Brad Pitt to Harrison Ford – showed an interest, and in each case the script underwent another rewrite. But the production team always reached the same conclusion: the technology wasn’t yet ready.
Enter Ang Lee, an experienced director and a technology buff, as he showed in his previous film, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which was a total flop but is considered a breakthrough picture for its innovative cinematography: 120 frames per second, instead of the standard 24, combined with high-resolution 3D. Few viewers saw the achievement, known as 3D Plus, because few movie theaters had the equipment to screen it in 2016. That is no longer the case. “Gemini Man,” which waited more than two decades for the special effects that would render its star young, allows Lee to show off these developments, which boast rich cinematography rife with small details. At least on some screens.
Still, this is an action picture, and the main attraction is the mortal combat between the Will Smiths. The plot revolves around Henry Brogan (the older Will Smith), who’s considered the world’s top assassin. The reason why is shown at the beginning of the film, in the form of a precision act of marksmanship targeting a passenger on a fast train from a distance of three kilometers. But like so many cinematic espionage agents before him, Henry, 51, decides to retire.
Not everyone in the agency is thrilled with this news, especially not Clay Varris (Clive Owen). He decides to liquidate the liquidator with the aid of a young cloned version of Brogan. The elder Brogan gets away with the aid of an agent played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and scurries around the world, trying to figure out how to repulse the assassin, codenamed Junior (young Smith), who operates exactly like he does.
Because puzzlement, question marks and yawns are the unavoidable response to most of the film, we’ll start with the quarter-full glass. The first encounter between Henry and Junior is a superb action sequence. Not because of the Smith vs. Smith gimmick, but by virtue of the camerawork, the editing and the choreography, which blend in a way that recalls Ang Lee at his peak, in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
The similarity doesn’t lie in the style of the combat itself, which this time is frontal, head to head, motorcycle to motorcycle, but in the energy and the rigorous aesthetic. The problem emerges in the second half of the film, most of which consists of unimpressive action scenes that are as predictable as they are lackluster and repetitive. The plunge in the film’s quality is dramatic and disappointing.
With the action mediocre and below, it’s clear why the marketing people are focusing on the technological achievements. It’s important to bear in mind that the young Smith is not cut from the same cloth as the young Samuel L. Jackson in “Captain Marvel” or Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s new film “The Irishman,” soon to be available on Netflix. Those are anti-ageing effects, which are applied to existing actors. “Gemini Man” has a completely digital version of Will Smith, made possible by the upgrading of the technology that engendered Andy Serkis’ Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.”
It’s impressive to see the scale of the technological sophistication, which could ultimately produce totally digital actors. But it’s not yet enough. In many scenes there’s an Achilles’ heel that shows that what’s fitting for a nonhuman character like Gollum doesn’t work for flesh-and-blood actors. The young Smith looks terrific – until he gets angry. Or feels sad. Or smiles. Every facial movement feels appallingly artificial. The technology may work for action, but not for drama.
Digitization undermines the acting of the young Will Smith character, and there’s no way to connect to pixilated tears; but that isn’t even the major flaw. The film’s underlying idea wasn’t foredoomed to be a gimmick, but the screenplay, written by David Benioff and Billy Ray, leaves little choice. At first I couldn’t figure out why the director creates mystery around Junior’s identity and reveals it only toward the middle of the film. After all, the poster at the entrance to the movie already reveals the secret, as does the trailer, along with the director and the stars in every possible interview. By the end of the film it’s clear that the marketing folks used every tool to attract viewers, even at the expense of the viewing experience.
Even after you get used to the special effects, there’s no way to get used to a screenplay with such hollow characters, mere echoes of archetypes from other spy movies. The tangled questions spawned by cloning don’t receive in-depth – or even on-surface – treatment. They’re reduced to a tactical problem: how to fight someone who knows you. “Gemini Man” has no story, no reasons, no motives, only a succession of scenes that are artificially welded together. What makes a loyal agent abandon her whole life in an instant, join a fugitive assassin, and rip out the teeth of former colleagues? And why does a convicted security agent who wants troops take such baseless action? The technology has yet to be invented that will compensate for an illogical plot and superficial characters.
Even so, there is something tragic about this movie. Even today, the special effects are far from perfect, with the digital version of Will Smith unable to capture his emotional state, charisma and presence. But if “Gemini Man,” had been made in real time – in the period when a cloned sheep thrilled humankind and before spies flooded the big screen – it would have borne the potential to be a different film.