Every superhero eventually faces his or her doppelgänger — even Will Smith, who confronts himself in the action-packed but narratively sketchy thriller “Gemini Man.”
Meeting one’s double is a great storytelling device, because it allows the main character to muse on the roads not taken, the what-ifs of one’s life — as well as letting the actor ham it up by playing variations on the character. Throw in the new technological wonders of de-aging, something such cool actors as Samuel Jackson (in “Captain Marvel”) and Robert De Niro (in “The Irishman”) have tried, and the lure is irresistible for a star like Smith.
Here, Smith plays Henry Brogan, an assassin who terminates the people the U.S. government tells him to terminate. (There’s always a euphemism, and the one here is so good I won’t spoil it.) But, at age 51 and with 72 kills to his credit, Henry tells his boss, Del (Ralph Brown), he’s going to retire to a fishing boat in Georgia.
What Henry doesn’t know at first is that the grad student now managing the marina is really a Defense Intelligence Agency minder, Dani Zakarewski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), assigned to run surveillance on Henry. The higher-ups suspect Harry’s motives for retiring, especially when he meets an old military buddy, Jack (Douglas Hodge), who knows a big secret and shares a bit of it with Henry.
Soon commandos are showing up trying to kill Henry, who drags Dani along to find someone to trust — namely, another military buddy, Baron (Benedict Wong), a hotshot pilot with a home in Cartagena, Colombia.
It’s there that Clay Verris (Clive Owen), a shady military contractor, unleashes the ultimate assassin to take down Henry. If you’ve seen any of the movie’s advertising, you know that this assassin is a 23-year-old clone of Henry, who has all of Henry’s fighting skills and instincts — but not, as yet, his demons.
Director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) stages some hellacious action sequences. Take, as just one example, that first encounter in Cartagena, which builds gradually from a multi-leveled courtyard shootout to a high-speed motorcycle chase to a mano-a-mano battle where the younger Will Smith is pretty much throwing motorcycles at the older Will Smith. (Lee works a lot of mirrors and reflective surfaces into the scene, to drive home the theme of duality.)
Lee, continuing a habit that started with “Life of Pi” and continued with “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” has been fascinated with the technical side of filmmaking — like still using high frame rates (in this case, 120 frames as opposed to the normal 24) to heighten the crispness of the image.
But Lee seems, like fellow director Robert Zemeckis, to embrace the high-tech aspects of filmmaking while neglecting the narrative problems. And there are problems aplenty in this tag-teamed script — credited to Darren Lemke (“Goosebumps”), David Benioff (“Game of Thrones”) and Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”) — in terms of character motivations and dumbed-down plot exposition, not to mention an idiotic late-inning twist. But as long as it looks spectacular, and Smith looks cool even when he’s literally beside himself, nothing else matters, does it?
Opens Friday, October 11, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language. Running time: 117 minutes.