America never tires of action movies. It also never tires of sending troops overseas. Ang Lee's new film "Gemini Man" is a goofy, high-octane action thriller that suggests that our love for goofy, high-octane action thrillers may have something to do with our apparently endless appetite for war.
The plot of "Gemini Man" is a familiar riff on the retiring assassin action trope. Like John Wick before him, Henry Brogan (played by Will Smith) is an impossibly skilled killer. He works for the government's Defense Intelligence Agency (D.I.A.), eliminating terrorists and international threats. But when he tries to put down his gun, though, his employers decide he's a loose end. A secret organization known as Gemini sends its best man to kill him — and it turns out that this “best man” is a secretly created, younger cloned version of Henry himself.
Henry's clone, Junior, is also portrayed by Will Smith, digitally de-aged. Much of the pleasure of the film is marveling at the resurrection of the young Will Smith.
Henry's clone, Junior, is also portrayed by Will Smith, digitally de-aged. Much of the pleasure of the film is marveling at the resurrection of the young Will Smith, eerily familiar to fans of mid-90s action films like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” The preview audience I watched the movie with enjoyed the stunts, but the real gasps were reserved for close-ups of an impossibly baby-faced Smith looking soulfully at the camera, brow furrowed, as if wondering what he's doing up there out of time. Henry says looking at his younger self is like seeing a ghost, and that's true for much of the audience as well, which has known Will Smith for almost as long as Will Smith has known himself.
A film about retirement and being stalked by your younger self could be autumnal and melancholy — a twilight elegy for a beloved star. That's not really how “Gemini Man” feels, though. Smith (like his character Brogan) is only 51, and as a (male) actor that means he's got a lot of action movies left in him. The 73-year-old Sylvester Stallone just released yet another Rambo film; Smith's probably got another two decades before he, like Henry, has to hang up his high-powered rifles.
So rather than a marker at the end of the road, “Gemini Man” is a celebration of Energizer Bunny-esque renewal. Smith, after all, plays both the aging and youthful versions of himself. Thanks to advanced biotech, studio wizardry and stunt doubles, Smith leaps from rooftops, rides motorcycles and dodges bullets — often playing two badass heroes in the same scene. Action stars lay down their guns in one film only to pop up again in the next, fresh and ready to do battle again. The thrills, spills and kills never stop — both because you can go back and rewatch “Men in Black” as often as you want, and because Hollywood will always give you a new product starring Will Smith, or someone like him.
The cheerful tribute to Smith's consistent charisma and unsinkability, though, exists alongside a darker thematic double. It's not just action movies that never end.
The evil head of Gemini, Clay Varris (Clive Owen), clones Henry because he wants to have an endless supply of super-soldiers to fight in America's quasi-colonial overseas conflicts. Junior is being prepped to go to Yemen, but that's just the latest destination on the map for U.S. troops and contractors with guns, drones and rocket launchers. Henry has been assassinating terrorists for decades — which dovetails with America’s real military, which has been involved in one conflict or another in Iraq since the beginning of Will Smith's extended career. It's fun to watch Smith reboot for yet another round of action sequences. It's less entertaining to realize that for all the time that Smith has been suiting up for pretend action, wave after wave of young kids Junior's age have been signing up for more tours of duty in Afghanistan, or Libya, or Pakistan.
Henry has been assassinating terrorists for decades — which dovetails with America’s real military, which has been involved in one conflict or another in Iraq since the beginning of Will Smith's extended career.
To its credit, “Gemini Man” does offer some criticism of America's state of constant war. The American military is hardly presented as trustworthy or competent. And there's a human cost to all the killing. Henry wants to quit, he says, because violence has wounded his soul. And he hopes that Junior can find a life for himself that involves something other than constant killing.
But at the same time, this is a body count film. The protagonist is cool and deep because he has doubts about his actions, but the film expresses little sympathy or interest in the people who die at his hands. You cheer the heroes on as they blast their way through an endless supply of faceless goons, which rather undermines the warnings about the evils of soldiering. Henry may be tired of killing, but we're not tired of seeing him kill.
Obviously, people who like action movies aren't necessarily enthusiastic supporters of the conflict in Yemen, or in Afghanistan, or anywhere. But “Gemini Man” is an uncomfortable reminder of the fact that our action movies and our wars have ground on, inexorably and in parallel, for decades. Will Smith fights on, and so do our troops. Every year there are new stunts, new special effects, new movies, new weapons and new wars. But the one thing we can't seem to do is to retire our old stories about violence, and tell some new ones.