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'Gemini Man' review: Older assassin Will Smith hunts younger assassin Will Smith; heart-to-hearts ensue


Oct. 09, 2019

“Gemini Man” isn’t bad, but two Will Smiths — when one of them’s computer-animated — somehow feels like 66-75 percent of a real movie.
I say this as a chronically late adapter with most things technological. I’ll probably wake up one morning 20 years from now with an “aha!” moment: “You know, that ‘Gemini Man’ — those computer-animation effects? Game-changer." The 2019 me thinks, well, pretty good. No less, no more.
The script has been knocking around Hollywood for two decades. Your enjoyment factor of the Ang Lee-directed picture will depend on how much you appreciate Lee’s relative restraint and innate, humane taste in all sorts of genres. “Restraint,” “humane” and “taste” don’t spell massive commercial success as a rule with action films. A hot, rancid potato such as “Joker” is more of an inaction picture, interrupted by a few splashes of ultraviolence; “Gemini Man,” lower-key and disinterested in crushing multiplex souls by the millions, will likely swim or sink on the narrative hook of Will Smith, killer elite, tracking Will Smith, killer elite, Gen Z division.
The set-up works well. One job away from a long-desired retirement after 70-plus killings, soul-weary, conscience-stricken Henry Brogan (Smith) takes aim at his latest government-sanctioned target, a bio-terrorist on board a bullet train in Belgium. Lee’s handling of this sequence puts us in good hands; the PG-13 violence is more suggested than blasted.
Back home in Georgia, our assassin hero quickly learns he has been set up by his bosses; hung out to dry by his U.S. agency; and even the new employee down at the boat rental place is revealed to be a deep-state company woman, tasked with surveying Henry’s moves. This quasi-adversary becomes an ally soon enough, as the trailers have already informed the world. She’s played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a key asset here, bringing a steady gaze and pleasing offhand air to familiar conspiracy doings.
“Gemini Man” takes its title from a supersecret cloning project overseen by a steely Defense Intelligence Agency official (Clive Owen, who hasn’t blinked on camera since “Children of Men”). The Owen character has raised the cloned Henry, aka “Junior,” from childhood. He is fully computer-animated. This is a different technical and creative matter than digital age-erasure of the sort Samuel L. Jackson underwent in “Captain Marvel,” or De Niro, Pesci and Pacino in much of the forthcoming “The Irishman.”
How does Will the Younger look? In close-up he looks right next door to “real.” I don’t know why, exactly, but in medium or long shot the effect becomes less convincing, more evidently a digitally animated species. It’s a matter of degrees: A showy action sequence on motorcycles careening through Cartagena, Columbia hums along, but it’s also fake times two, since little of the action we’re seeing is happening for “real." May the better digital effect win.
Written by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, “Gemini Man” shares a preoccupation with another current title, “Ad Astra”: hurting sons confronting workaholic, monomaniacal fathers. En route to a rather static climax, the action flits from the U.S. to Columbia and then to Budapest, Hungary (more assailants, more killing), and back home to Georgia. The debates concerning the ethics of cloning owe a considerable debt to any number of previous movies, and to a sheep named Dolly (name-checked in “Gemini Man”). The animated realization of Will Smith, wrinkle-free version, may indeed point to the future of visual manipulation in Hollywood and around the world; Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s New Zealand company, knows what it’s doing, and how to keep audiences a few yards up the hill from the uncanny valley. The script’s just adequate, though; the movie’s an easy watch, but the writing likewise feels like a digitally animated approximation of the real thing.
“Gemini Man” — 2.5 stars
MPAA rating : PG-13 (for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language)
Running time : 1:57
Opens : Thursday evening
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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