Throughout the first 20 or so minutes of Gemini Man, the one question that’ll be burning a hole in the minds of even the most casual cinephiles will be why, of all the stories in the world, would Ang Lee choose to tell this one?

The core premise, that of an aging hitman being hunted by his younger clone, is from a script that originally sold back in 1997! It looks, on the surface, to be a vapid throwback that can’t walk in the massive shoes left behind by similar hits like Face/Off. But Lee is playing at more than just experimenting with CGI de-aging technology and high frame rate 3D. Really, the rub is that he’s playing at all.

Those expecting a big misfire from the two-time Oscar winner have plenty of ammunition for that assumption. This is an unspectacular project that’s been passed around big name directors and movie stars for over twenty years, but the finished script (credited to original scribe Darren Lemke as well as prestige fixer Billy Ray and “Games of Thrones” co-showrunner David Benioff) leaves a lot to be desired.

Will Smith stars as Henry Brogan, a government assassin whose prowess and kill record make him something of an icon in the spook community. He starts to feel the weight of his life’s regrettable work alongside the corrosive influence of time whittling away at his skills and decides to retire. But an off-the-books private military organization run by his former boss Clay Varris (Clive Owen) sends a new operative to silence Henry, a young clone raised by Varris to be the ultimate killing machine.

There’s also room for a half-fleshed out love interest played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and some fun sidekick work from Benedict Wong, but primarily, this is a strangely heartwarming tale about wrestling with one’s past, making it a one-man show for Smith to grapple with a motion captured tulpa of himself. Though that conflict is literalized within some very sharp and cleanly directed action (some of the year’s best, to be honest), it’s in that character portrait that Lee’s involvement begins to make sense.

That Lee proves he is one of the best living directors of action here pretty casually, as if he could be a relentless tentpole helmer if he ever felt like it, takes a backseat to the way he imbues this antiquated thriller paradigm with a welcome tinge of interiority. Using Smith is a stroke of genius, given how well he’s aged and how his facial features probably made the de-aging process easier on the film’s SFX artists, but it’s Smith’s undeniable sincerity and charm that gives the film its life.

Smith is a waste in the first act as the script sets Henry up to be this legendary badass, but when it comes time to watch a grown man have therapy with himself in the middle of a motorcycle fight, the former Fresh Prince dispenses a complex array of emotional layers beneath the artful application of humorous one-liners, resulting in a movie that probes the human psyche without ever dipping into self-seriousness.

Somehow, Lee really made a breezy, easy-to-like action movie that tries to say something profound without navel-gazing, and all people seem to focus on is how much an anachronism the final result is. Gemini Man is by no means perfect and is held back by overwrought screenwriting no doubt caused by 20 straight years of repeated rewrites. Many lament the absence of a strong authorial voice in most mainstream genre fare these days, with more and more studios churning out big budget films shepherded by inexperienced directors sticking to an in-house style. Sure, the better solution would be a wider variety of films being made at all, but at its best, Gemini Man proves that letting a filmmaker as talented and sincere as Lee back into the summer blockbuster space is a good start.

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