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'Gemini Man' review: New technology, old story

Will Smith is on the run from a

Will Smith is on the run from a Junior version of himself in "Gemini Man." Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures/Ben Rothstein

PLOT A government assassin is targeted by someone he knows well: his younger self.

CAST Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen

RATED PG-13 (violence, some language)

LENGTH 1:56

BOTTOM LINE Groundbreaking technology and a so-so story make for a passable action thriller.

In Ang Lee's "Gemini Man," Will Smith plays an aging assassin who finds himself hunted by his much younger double. The movie itself is also two in one. It's a technologic marvel that uses digital magic to achieve a level of vividness and realism unparalleled in film history. And it's a routine Hollywood blockbuster with more spectacle than originality.

First, the story: Smith plays Henry Brogan, a sniper working for something called the Defense Intelligence Agency. Brogan is the best in the business, the Chris Kyle of the DIA, able to shoot a man through the window of a passing train. Just as he's about to retire, though, he winds up in someone else's crosshairs. Now Brogan must embark on a globe-hopping mission — from rural Georgia to exotic Istanbul — to find out who wants him dead and why.

If "Gemini Man" sounds like a thriller from the late 1990s, that's because the story, by Darren Lemke, was originally conceived around then. Only now has technology made it possible to put an actor on screen alongside his 30-years-younger self.

That self, nicknamed Junior, isn't an airbrushed Smith. Junior is a nearly pure digital creation, with help from a motion-captured Smith. (He's somewhere between the Na'vi of "Avatar" and the new Simba of "The Lion King.") You never doubt Junior's physical presence, which is quite a feat, but there's something off about him. The eyes are too limpid, the lids blink too slowly, the forehead knots strangely. Junior also comes with just two facial expressions: wariness and concern. Can we blame Smith for the limited acting? Or is that computers still can't duplicate a genuine, human smile?

Real Smith isn't much better. Trapped in the world-weary character of Brogan, he rarely has a chance to show his natural wit and charm. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Danny, a fast-on-her-feet DIA agent, and Clive Owen as Clay Verris, a typical military-industrial villain, both show more life on screen.

One last technological note: "Gemini Man" was shot at 120 frames per second, the same rate Lee used in 2016 for "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." (The standard rate is 24.) The detail is astounding; the ridges of Smith's fingerprints look as large as the Alps. The advantage is that certain action scenes, especially those involving pyrotechnics and firearms, take on an electrifying new intensity. But there's a drawback: Without even a hint of blur, the stuntmen and body doubles have trouble hiding their faces. The spell of movie magic is frequently broken.

Is this really cinema's future? If so, it's still susceptible to the usual problems. Meet the new film, same as the old film. 

Will Smith's biggest hits

Is Will Smith the major box-office draw he once was? The answer is: He certainly can be. Here are his four highest-grossing hits, adjusted for inflation, according to BoxOfficeMojo:

INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) — Smith’s big-screen breakout in Roland Emmerich’s flag-waving blockbuster is still his biggest hit with an adjusted $624 million.

MEN IN BLACK (1997) — Smith and Tommy Lee Jones made unlikely magic together in this sci-fi comedy. It earned an adjusted $492 million and launched a four-film franchise.

ALADDIN (2019) — Just this year, Smith played a computer-enhanced version of the Genie in Disney's live-action version of the 1992 animated film. Despite negative reviews, the movie became one of Smith's biggest hits with $355 million.

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) — David Ayer's supervillain ensemble film starred Smith as Deadshot, an expert marksman. Critics loathed it and audiences generally yawned, but it takes more than that to sink a comic-book movie these days. "Suicide Squad" earned an adjusted $343 million.

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