Few movie stars have been so willing to suffer for our ostensible entertainment as Will Smith. I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment, but I also say it with some real if qualified admiration. Smith can suffer beautifully, even movingly, onscreen, as he did playing a destitute dad trying to care for his young son in 2006’s “The Pursuit of Happyness.” A few years later he seemed to succumb to a bizarre martyr/messiah complex, shouldering the weight of the world in movies that were sometimes fine (“I Am Legend”), sometimes terrible (“Seven Pounds”), but rarely uninteresting.
Brooding seriousness can become Smith, though lately lightness becomes him more. It was an unexpected tonic to see him play a big blue genie in this year’s “Aladdin” remake, and it’s almost a relief to know he has a “Bad Boys” sequel on the horizon. But he still sometimes mistakes pain for depth, especially when he’s playing the somber, grieving father figure, sometimes in pictures so maudlin (“Collateral Beauty” or “After Earth,” anyone?) that watching them becomes its own form of self-punishment. You don’t just see Smith suffer in these movies; you suffer right there along with him.
Which brings us, in a suitably roundabout fashion, to “Gemini Man,” a silly, soggy, not-unwatchable misfire that finally arrives in theaters this week after languishing for nearly 20 years in development hell. Directed by an off-his-game Ang Lee from a screenplay credited to David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, the movie stars Smith as Henry Brogan, a government marksman who’s far better at killing people than he is at forming sustainable relationships with them.
Years of self-hatred and disillusionment have taken their toll on Brogan, though the 51-year-old Smith, with his sad eyes, graying temples and natural charisma, is awfully good at short-circuiting guilt. Faced with a character we might have reason to fear and mistrust, we instead find ourselves wondering why a nice guy his age doesn’t have a wife and kids.
Brogan is introduced shortly before he pulls off his 72nd kill, taking out a dangerous target on a literal bullet train from more than a mile away. It’s a sloppier hit than usual, and Brogan decides it’s time to hang up his sniper rifle before doubt and old age get the better of him. Unfortunately, some powerful, shadowy types have decided to make his retirement a permanent one. Upon learning that his latest victim may not have been the terrorist he was led to believe, Brogan is betrayed, ambushed and suddenly on the run, dashing off to Cartagena and Budapest with allies in tow and enemies on his tail.
The allies — a goofy pilot (Benedict Wong) and an up-and-coming intelligence agent (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) — are fun to spend time with, in part because they seem to have been shipped in from a fresher, funnier movie. The enemies are a relative drag; they’re played by Clive Owen and Linda Emond, locked in a competition to see who can smile the least. But they’re all distractions from the movie’s main attraction, which involves a paramilitary organization called Gemini that is building an army of assassins through human cloning.
In a twist that’s pure “Mission: Sub-Oedipal,” Brogan learns that he is being hunted by a doppelganger, a younger version of himself manufactured from his own DNA. He is played by Smith with the help of some de-aging digital trickery, the effect of which at times suggests an unusually funereal episode of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Brogan, being the best of the best, was an obvious if unwitting candidate for replication, and his clone, nicknamed Junior, has inherited his excellent marksmanship. But he has also inherited the older man’s emotional void, his profound alienation, his inability to see other people as anything but moving targets. That’s the gimmick of “Gemini Man,” and its chief selling point: You get two suffering Smiths for the price of one.
I regret to say it’s not much of a bargain, especially if you factor in the potential surcharge. Lee has advised audiences to see “Gemini Man” projected in 3-D at an accelerated frame rate — a dubious technological upgrade that the filmmaker previously experimented with in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” his muddled but affecting drama about a young Iraq war veteran. The format’s deficiencies were on display even then: The crisp, hyper-real intensity of the images could seem more distracting than immersive, often evoking the dreadful “motion smoothing” effect that still plagues too many television sets.
That’s more or less the look of “Gemini Man,” at least at the high-frame-rate 3-D screening I attended. But it certainly is a look. It’s an aesthetic that many have understandably likened to that of a daytime soap opera, but the sheer oddity of seeing it on a big screen can be curiously arresting: Those ultra-sharp establishing shots of Georgian waterfronts and Hungarian cityscapes sure do pop. A chase sequence that ends with Junior repeatedly attacking Brogan with a motorcycle (not on a motorcycle but with a motorcycle) gets an added jolt of visceral, what-the-hell immediacy.
At times Lee seems to be trying, with mixed success, to channel the shadowy digital expressionism of Michael Mann. (“Gemini Man” was shot by Dion Beebe, who also served as a director of photography on Mann’s “Collateral.”) But the role of technological pioneer has never really suited Lee, and here it seems ever more in danger of overwhelming his natural instincts as a storyteller. Every so often in “Gemini Man,” the director reminds you of his flair for spectacle — there’s an over-the-rooftops action scene that feels like an overt nod to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — but his truer gift has always been for developing characters and subtext, for building tension within a scene and suggesting hidden depths of feeling.
Lee, in other words, is well versed in the fine art of suffering himself. And there are moments here when you can feel him straining to give all this standard-issue thriller nonsense a more emotional dimension, to slow down the frenzied geopolitical shenanigans and give them a human pulse. That might almost account for a few eccentrically laid-back interludes, such as the Hungarian spa scene where the whole gang hangs out in bathrobes, or some strained banter that becomes an unusually tortured product placement for Coca-Cola. In time Brogan and Junior will have to lower their weapons and figure out what’s going on, connecting in ways that are meant to be therapeutic for them and cathartic for the audience.
But no catharsis is forthcoming, thanks to a shopworn script and a visual gimmick that feels more distracting than necessary. There are charitable explanations for the uncanny-valley effect of Smith 2.0; maybe your younger clone should look a little off, a little CGI. But it remains an empty, off-putting stunt, and not a particularly moving one. No matter how many (presumably non-computer-generated) tears Smith sheds, he and Lee never transform this baby hit man into a plausible science-fiction conceit, let alone invest him with a soul.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Opens Oct. 11 in wide release