In the mid-’90s there were two high concept screenplays that were much discussed and in demand to be made within the Hollywood studio system. One was called “The Ticking Man,” set in the near future, about a man who wakes up, finds a bomb has been surgically planted in his chest, and has one hour to stop the explosion from happening. I recall Bruce Willis’ name being thrown around for the lead role. It was never made. The other one, “Gemini Man,” shared an equally novel and vaguely futuristic premise, had a revolving door of talent express interest in the project and, like “The Ticking Man,” was never made. That is, until now. I wish I could report that the time it took to finally bring this long gestating project to the big screen was worth it.
Will Smith stars as Henry Brogan, a professional hitman whose lifelong career of murdering people from afar has taken a toll on him. A much needed vacation from sniping victims from a moving train (you read that right) brings him to a fishing dock, where he discovers the first of many startling developments: The lovely young lady running the place (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is actually an agent sent to spy on him. Later, Grogan is hunted by an efficient young hitman, who is called “Junior” and is literally his younger self (also played by Smith with advanced de-aging special effects technology). Brogan finds his most challenging nemesis to be himself, in the form of a younger, faster opponent.
In the hands of the brilliant filmmaker Ang Lee, Gemini Man is an interesting failure, in which cutting edge, mostly persuasive CGI services a C-level script. It aims to be a Robert Ludlam-like spy yarn, complete with globetrotting, double-crosses, various conspiracies, and hard-hitting action, infused with science fiction. The result isn’t light on its feet and has little momentum, instead taking too much time to develop from one sequence to the next. Lee’s film is serious-minded but also somber and stiff.
Not helping matters is some misplaced humor and the alarming number of dead spots along the way; the script should have been trimmed of scenes in which much is discussed but nothing happens. Also, the dialog is terrible. Two recurring thoughts tumbled through my mind throughout Gemini Man: No human beings on planet Earth talk like this, and what is going on with this movie?
As Brogan, Smith is first-rate, taking this assignment seriously and giving a grave, largely no-nonsense performance. His second performance is far more problematic, as the de-aging special effects made to create his younger self are uncanny but the character barely registers. “Junior” isn’t compelling, which is a major problem. The hundreds of millions spent to bring this uneventful person to life weren’t worth it, as character offers little interest beyond his outward appearance. I wonder if the problem is strictly at the writing level or if an actor with an even more formidable career (Denzel Washington? Robert De Niro?) would have been more interesting playing off their younger self.
Winstead is so appealing, she ignites her nothing of a character (she’s basically playing the same kind of exposition-spouting, tag-along that Julia Stiles played in the Jason Bourne movies). Not helping matters is an awkward performance by Clive Owen as the central villain.
There is one terrific sequence, a foot and motorcycle chase between the two hitmen; it’s as thrilling as anything we’ve seen from Ethan Hunt. In terms of staging and pacing (aided by a thundering, exciting score by Lorne Balfe), it’s a majorly accomplished action set piece and represents the film at its best.
Lee, the Taiwan-born, Oscar-winning director with a staggering versatility, remains a commanding filmmaker but he’s hit a professional snag. Like his prior work, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the state-of-the-art visuals work overtime to keep a poorly conceived screenplay from sinking. He’s hit a Robert Zemeckis-like patch, as his considerable talent and a chest of new CGI toys are undermined by a bad script. Gemini Man may have taken decades to finally get made, and mostly looks great, but masterfully placed pixels can’t overcome a screenplay as dumb as a pile of rocks.
Rated PG-13 / 117 Min.
Image courtesy IMDB