'Gemini Man' Review: Ang Lee's Odd Action Experiment Is More Video Game Than Movie

"I'm having trouble looking in the mirror lately," says Henry Brogan (Will Smith), one of the world's best assassins. He's spent a large chunk of his career bumping off bad guys for the government, but now he wants to hang up his guns and retire at the ripe old age of 51. He's tired of killing people, and for the first time in his deadly career, he's actually starting to grow what might be considered a conscience. But if Henry thought looking in the mirror was hard, just wait until he comes face to face with a new enemy: himself.

A younger, cloned Henry (played by a digitally de-aged Smith) has come calling, setting the stage for a big Will Smith vs. Will Smith action extravaganza wrapped-up in a package called Gemini Man. All the pieces are there, and those pieces rest in the able hands of director Ang Lee. So why is the end result so curiously lifeless? At some point, Lee got too caught up with the tech at work here and forgot to focus on a moving narrative. The end result is more video game than movie.

Digitally de-aging is becoming more and more prevalent. Marvel has been doing it for a few years now, perfecting things with a perfectly de-aged Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel. Martin Scorsese's upcoming The Irishman uses similar tech to de-age Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino – with mostly successful results (there are one or two scenes where the effect seems off). Gemini Man wants to take things to a whole new level, so much so that Lee has been insistent on stating that this isn't a "digitally de-aged" Will Smith – it's a full CGI creation. Smith may have been his own stand-in, but his younger version is de-aged in body as well as face.

Smith has been in the limelight for decades, and we know exactly what he looked like as a younger man from his Fresh Prince days. So when the young Smith – nicknamed Junior – finally pops-up about a half-hour into the movie the result is momentarily stunning. It really looks like a young Will Smith has teleported from the past into this movie.

But then Junior starts talking – and the effect is completely blown. Because while the FX wizards Lee has worked with are able to master Smith's resting face, they never quite get the knack to show it in motion. And unfortunately, there's a lot of motion here. Henry and Junior are constantly sparring, fighting, and bickering, which means the digital Smith has a lot of action and acting to do. But every time he moves his mouth or blinks his eyes, there's an eerie, uncanny quality at play. He starts to look less like a living, breathing human and more like a video game character – or even the lead character in this year's Alita: Battle Angel. Alita never looked fully real in that movie, but it worked in that context – after all, she's a cyborg. But Smith's Junior is supposed to be flesh and blood.

None of this is Smith's fault. The actor does the best he can with the clunky, humorless script from David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke. Smith has always had charisma to burn, and Lee was wise to cast him here, because Gemini Man has to coast almost entirely on that charisma. He brings a rough weariness to Henry and a conflicted tenderness to Junior that still manages to shine through all that damn CGI.

Along his journey, Henry is aided by Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), another agent accidentally caught up in this mess. There was a time when Winstead's character would be little more than a tag-along – a hapless, helpless female character that Smith would have to save over and over again. But Gemini Man makes the smart choice of having Winstead's Danny be more than able to handle herself, and she gets to kick as much ass as Smith. Progress!

Henry and Danny are also helped by Henry's old pal Baron, a woefully underwritten character saved by a lively, if underused, Benedict Wong. Baron is more plot device than character – he exists because he knows how to fly a plane, and the story requires Henry to fly all over Europe at the drop of a hat. You keep waiting for the character to have a big moment to shine – but it never comes.

All of this cloning and mayhem has been orchestrated by Clay Varris, an evil government spy played by a sleepy, bored Clive Owen. There's a lot of talk about how twisted and cold-hearted Varris is, but Owen plays him so low-key and lifeless that he makes for an ultimately drab villain. Varris' plan to eliminate Henry begins to take on all the trappings of a Bourne sequel, where he bickers with other government agents behind-the-scenes about who to kill next. It's all so boring that you might want to go ahead and take a bathroom break during these scenes.

The only time Gemini Man really comes alive is during its big action scenes. Lee stages many of these in brightly lit locals, all the better to highlight the High Frame Rate he shot the film in – a technique which looks like big-screen motion smoothing, and one which filmmakers should strop trying to make happen. There are several big set pieces including a motorcycle chase where the two Smiths are literally chucking their bikes at each other. But even these action scenes falter, particularly when Lee has his characters pull off the impossible. On more than one occasion Junior's acrobatics make him look more like a rubber doll than a human being, and one specific moment where Henry does the world's most powerful push-up – one that literally launches his entire body off the ground as if it were a spring – is so damn silly looking that it's surprising it made it into the final film.

The video game comparisons come into play here, too. Not only do many of the action scenes get bogged down in digital nonsense, Lee often cuts to POV shots with the camera mounted on the barrel of whatever gun Henry happens to be holding, thus moving the camera along with the weapon. The end result looks exactly like a moment lifted from a first-person shooter game.

Lee is a daring filmmaker and deserves credit for trying new things visually with Gemini Man. But it would've been better off for everyone if he had stopped to think about the story as well. There's a lot of psychological material to mine from this premise – a man literally coming face to face with himself. But Gemini Man only gives that material a cursory glance, and then it's on to the next action scene drowning in digital drudgery. There's nothing wrong with a middle-of-the-road action pic, but you can tell Gemini Man wants to be something much bigger, and better. It isn't.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10