GEMINI MAN: A 90’s sci-fi action thriller that fell through a time vortex

Somebody on Twitter suggested the tagline for Gemini Man should have been “where there’s a Will, there’s a Will” which not only made me laugh but also could aptly describe Ang Lee’s rather uncanny picture.

Gemini Man infamously resided in Hollywood’s so-called ‘development hell’ for two decades, with Darren Lemke’s idea snapped up by producer Jerry Bruckheimer as far back as 1997. It filtered through multiple directors over the years such as Curtis Hanson and Joe Carnahan, not to mention a galaxy of Hollywood megastars including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, even at one time, err, Chris O’Donnell. The list goes on. It even cycled through half a dozen writers – Billy Ray, Andrew Niccol, Brian Helgeland. Gemini Man, in other words, has been through the wringer across twenty years in which mainstream cinema has significantly changed, not being made principally because studios didn’t believe the technology to duplicate a younger version of their headline star was quite there.

Fast forward to the late 2010’s, a world of VR headsets, advanced home computer devices and CG technology which can paint a picture like Avengers: Endgame, in which a legion of superheroes go to war against a super-villain and his space army. If ever there was a time to make Gemini Man, it was now, yet who two decades ago would have imagined Ang Lee—principally a darling of thoughtful character-driven deconstruction—as the director to develop such a high concept as international assassin Will Smith doing battle with his younger, cloned self, all part of an insidious conspiracy within the Defence Intelligence Agency to develop the next generation of soldier hardware. This might have ended up in the hands of a Tony Scott or Roger Spottiswoode had it been made earlier.

The answer lies in the fact Gemini Man, for all it’s action thriller trappings, secretly wants to be a philosophical family drama. It just spends much of the running time trying to convince you otherwise.

Part of the uncanny valley nature of Gemini Man is just how lost in time it feels. Rarely has a film with one foot in the 2020’s felt so resolutely like it fell through a time vortex from the late 1990’s.

Everything about Gemini Man is old fashioned. Smith—who has aged with real dignity into a role like this and carries the film well—is one of those characters in Henry Brogan described as “the best”. He slots neatly into the ‘Geri-action’ sub-genre myself & Carl Sweeney recently discussed on our Motion Pictures podcast, in fact; indeed Gemini Man at its very core is concerned with challenging the pre-conceived stereotype of the legendary old government agent hauled out of retirement to take down the much younger bad guys. Nevertheless, Brogan has a “particular set of skills” and is always one step ahead of the men coming to kill him, as befits the cliche.

Gemini Man does at least avoid the kind of awkward cross-generational romance 90’s films of this ilk would have indulged in (Entrapment, I love ya, but I’m looking at you) with Smith’s dynamic alongside Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s noble DIA agent Danielle, who swiftly becomes his female sidekick on the global race to find his would-be assassins and expose the conspiracy at the heart of the story. The film nonetheless folds Winstead into a very traditional supporting female role of this ilk – she’s tough, she’s handy, she’s clever, but not quite as much as Brogan and ultimately will need rescuing. Throw in the always enjoyable Benedict Wong as ‘the Baron’, the comedy sidekick who randomly has access to jet planes, contacts around the world, and can seemingly get anything from anywhere, and all the cliches are in place.

The crux of Gemini Man is, however, the CGI conflict between old and young Will. Oddly enough, Will Smith feels like the kind of actor it makes sense to do this with, given his youthful, Fresh Prince of Bel Air flat-top look from the early 1990’s remains recognisable in pop culture. Just say the words Fresh Prince and people of a certain age will still start singing “West Philadelphia, born and raised…”. Given Smith’s erratic, often quite flat post-90’s career, he is an actor who remains closely associated with his iconic 90’s roles – Men in Black, Independence Day, Bad Boys – many of which he has assiduously avoided repeating himself in over the two decades; he is soon to appear in Bad Boys For Life, mind, recently lamented turning down the role of Neo in The Matrix, and don’t bet against him one day returning to revitalise the ailing MIB franchise.

The point is that Smith is convincing enough to remain believable as an action star, despite heading into middle-age, and cool enough to pull off facing a slick, smart-mouthed younger self as he does here in ‘Junior’, his cloned twenty-something antagonist sent off by Clive Owen’s sinister defence contractor to kill older Smith when he starts sniffing around the titular ‘Gemini’ project. Problematically though, there are huge plot holes Lee’s script often fails to reconcile, chiefly the logic of Owen’s villain Veras sending Junior to kill Brogan when it is blatantly obvious doing so will just lead them both to discover the truth about each other and compromise the mission. Junior even questions it, and the script lamely tries to explain it away by discussions about “your darkness”, or Junior being the “best”, when Brogan even says, having restrained him, that “you are obviously not the best”.

That is problem number one, that Gemini Man fundamentally cannot square why these two characters would ever be in the same room when Veras has other assassins—presumably cloned—he could have sent to kill Brogan – hell, why didn’t he just send a small army to destroy him? Brogan’s good but Gemini Man often makes the point that he’s not indestructible, and age is a key factor to the entire picture. Smith’s assassin is slowing down, grappling not just with age but his wearying conscience, and the script’s argument for Gemini is that we could develop, thanks to science, the kind of soldiers who fear little pain, don’t need sleep, don’t struggle with inner demons (Brogan is an insomniac because sleep, hilariously, “is where the ghosts are”). In other words, Brogan is fallible, and Gemini Man wants to have its cake and eat it where that’s concerned quite often.

If the idea of conscience-free super-soldiers feels strangely old hat, you wouldn’t be wrong. Gemini Man seems to live in 90’s geopolitical world, sipping tea next to its mate The Peacemaker or maybe The 6th Day. While contracting soldiers out to governments feels more of a modern idea, the idea of a DIA in on quite a nefarious project is straight out of 90’s action pictures, where shady government agencies were up to all kinds of no good. The Russians are lurking in the background here but Gemini Man displays none of the geopolitical chaos we’re in the middle of right now – it is defiantly post-Cold War, pre-9/11 in its world view, you feel, as if these aspects of the script were never really updated from 1997. It makes Gemini Man feel even more of a throwback.

Then again, maybe we’re looking in the wrong place here for what Gemini Man is, because Ang Lee seems far less interested in the political or conspiratorial underpinnings than he does the dysfunctional family aspect of the story. Junior is the confused, easily-led son, victim of a controlling and insidious father figure, while Brogan presents at first like a weary older brother and ultimately segues into a proxy father role. Danielle sits somewhere between a sister and potential love interest for Junior. And while Gemini Man has its share of action sequences—principally a motorbike chase in Cartagena which ends with Junior weirdly chasing Brogan like a hyped-up bull in an arena on a bike—Lee will always exchange an action beat for a psychological or philosophical consideration, digging into the archetypal themes lurking within Gemini Man; the id, the inner darkness of man, the sins of the father etc…

It all makes for a strange experience. Gemini Man is unusual. The CGI ostensibly is *there* now, with the awkwardness of, say, young Professor X & Magneto in X-Men: The Last Stand ironed out, but twenty-something Will Smith voiced by fifty year old (sorry, 51), Will sounds odd, despite how much Will tries to recapture his youthful timbre. There’s just something missing. There is, as stated above, something uncanny about the whole thing – especially seeing young Will zipping around at times like Yoda in Attack of the Clones. We’re about to see more of this with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (likely to be more celebrated) and if this is to become the new trend, Hollywood digitally de-ageing their older, beloved stars in order to tap them for roles they’re now too old to play then, honestly… we’re going to have to accept for a while the unreality of it all.

Gemini Man fits that description. Slightly unreal. Slightly odd. Very much out of time. 

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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