Long before digital imaging, German philosopher Walter Benjamin opined that reproductions of artworks lacked the "aura" of the original. But what about reproductions of people? To judge by Will Smith's double act in Gemini Man, the forerunner can be just as lacking as the copy.
Conceived more than 20 years ago as a Tony Scott-directed action flick, Gemini Man eventually fell to Ang Lee, who has recently shown more interest in cinematic technology than storytelling. Once a versatile stylist, the Taiwan-born director of The Life of Pi now seems consumed by advances in CGI. His latest trick, casting Will Smith against a digitally backdated version of himself, can't save this movie from being bland, sluggish, and sentimental.
The two Smiths are, respectively, a 51-year-old U.S. government operative and his 25-year-old antagonist. Henry Brogan is confounded when he first glimpses the face of the assassin who's pursuing him. It's like looking in a mirror, something Henry has already portentously said he doesn't like to do. The facsimile, it turns out, was cloned from Henry without his knowledge by the melodramatically villainous Clay Varris (Clive Owen).
Of course Henry's test-tube offspring, known as Junior, is a killer. So is his not-exactly-dad. Introduced taking an impossible but accurate shot at a man on a high-speed train, Henry has long been a hitman for the Defense Intelligence Agency. (There is an organization of that name, but it likely doesn't bear much resemblance to the one depicted here.)
After the opening kill, Henry submits his resignation, and is surprised when his bosses' response is to mark him for death. Apparently he hasn't seen many movies about hitmen who try to retire.
The targeter-turned-target calls on his small circle of friends, most of whom don't last long. Luckily he has a new acquaintance, Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), with better survival skills. She's a scrapper, a talker, and a whiz with DNA samples.
Assigned by the DIA to tail Henry, Danny quickly switches loyalties. Soon she and Henry are on their way to Cartagena and then Budapest. It's an itinerary worthy of James Bond, although the movie's enthusiasm for tourist-postcard locations recalls the work of Dan Brown more than Ian Fleming.
There's something else that Gemini Man shares with The Da Vinci Code: clunky dialogue. Credited to three writers but reportedly the work of many more, the movie's script offers a preposterous scenario that might have been finessed by visual and verbal wit. It has little of either.
Smith moved from hip-hop and sitcoms to big-screen roles thanks to boyish charm and an ability to deliver wisecracks as he dispensed bullets and blows. He acquits himself well enough in the movie's action scenes, some of which are well-staged, but can't do much with Henry's lousy lines. But perhaps the actor intentionally downplayed his trademark insouciance so as not call attention to the stiffness of Henry's alter-ego. The machine-generated Junior is a lot more convincing as a menacing, wordless action figure than as a bio-tech Pinocchio who manages to become a real boy.
That high-speed train scene, at least, can be read as something of a joke. Gemini Man was filmed at 120 frames per second, a veritable bullet-train of digital-video velocities. The resulting images are certainly crisp, yet appear distractingly sterile. One might say they have no aura.
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