It’s really unfortunate when you see quality directors go down holes they really shouldn’t have gone down in the first place. Ang Lee decided that 120 frames per second was the wave of the future a while back, and he’s not letting go. So, while he made it happen in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, to a muted response, he decided to repackage the technique using the newest in digital cloning, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and one of the lamest scripts that had been languishing around Hollywood for twenty years. Instead of seeing a dull, cliched script, Lee seemed to see it as a vehicle for his technological games. Everything that James Cameron has done wrong in the last couple of decades Ang Lee ended up doing worse, and it’s unfortunate.
Will Smith plays Henry, an assassin nearing the end of his useful time in the trade, and the movie introduces him in a rather unexciting action scene that opens the film. Starting a film with an action sequence is always a dicey move because the audience starts the action beats without any real investment in the action. So, when the movie decides that we need witty repartee between characters and a tense moment where things could go wrong, it tends to fall flat because we don’t really know the characters and the stakes are ill-defined at best.
Henry is so good, though, that shooting a man through the neck on a speeding train from two kilometers away is simply not good enough since he was aiming for the man’s head. Time to retire. The way this all plays out, with Henry talking to his handler about putting up the gun to fish feels like this is the third or fourth entry in a franchise, not the first. There’s so much implied history going back and forth, it really feels like the opening of a new adventure with someone we’ve known for a while. Think of Kirk in Star Trek II except we’ve never seen Henry before.
Henry ends up meeting some other former assassin who tells him that the Russian Henry assassinated at the beginning of the movie was not who Henry thought he was, having been lied to by the agency that ran the op. This gets overheard through satellite surveillance, and Varris, Clive Owen, decides that the only recourse is to have Henry killed. But Henry is the best, so only the best can get sent. After Henry kills a few soldiers who sneak up to his coastal house and picks up Danielle, an agency asset sent to monitor Henry who is also on the kill list, Varris gets the green light and sends in the best to kill the best.
This is all very standard double cross spy/assassination stuff told with little flair or energy by Lee. Everything gets telegraphed heavily beforehand, leaving no room for any kind of surprise. It doesn’t help that the marketing is full of the only real surprise in the film, that Henry’s incoming assassin is his younger clone. If the marketing hadn’t given that away in literally every poster, it might have been a neat surprise because the movie, other than calling the secret program that birthed young Henry Gemini, gives no real indication up to that point that there’s a Henry clone. It could have been a decent surprise if we didn’t know going in and if the movie, well, if it was remotely interesting otherwise.
The characters are so thin, the plot so meaningless, and the reasons behind everything so murky that it’s really hard to engage with the material on any level. Having that surprise be an actual surprise would have been a nice jolt that could have introduced something to the proceedings. Instead, it becomes a waiting game for this reveal. Once there, the movie gives us a handful of rather accomplished if slightly plastic looking action scenes. The fist fight between the two Henry’s in the catacombs is pretty solid, though. And that’s really the extent of the movie’s charms. It has some technical things to recommend it like the special effects that create young Henry and some of the action scenes, but nothing else beyond that is terribly fascinating.
Henry’s a generic action hero who’s just too old for this stuff. Danielle is largely nothing. Henry Junior is barely a character. Varris is generic bad guy. As the plot moves from South America to Europe and back to America, it feels very paint by numbers and never leaps off the page.
Just thinking back to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a wonderful action spectacle that matched pleasing action aesthetics with a tender story, it’s depressing to see Lee chasing projects for all the wrong reasons. This is James Cameron obsessed with 3D but worse because at least Avatar was able to deliver epic scope and a great action ending. Gemini Man can never move beyond its lackluster script, and it seems like no one even tried. A photorealistic looking young Will Smith will only get you so far in storytelling, and it’s not very far at all.