Images from Gemini Man (Ang Lee, 2019)

Seven years after the enormous critical and commercial success of his earlier 3D fantasy, Life of Pi (2012), Ang Lee gives us Gemini Man, an epic sci-fi fiasco that should be called Life of Null. Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, a crack assassin for the Defense Intelligence Agency who retires at 51 only to be targeted by his previously unknown 23-year-old clone, part of a private para-military group called Gemini that does the DIA’s dirty work. Brogan puts his trigger-finger to rest after he kills a man on a distant moving train with a shot to the neck, though he aimed for the head. He doesn’t want his dimming powers to endanger innocents after 72 supposedly righteous kills already burden his conscience. The powers-that-be fear that Brogan, tipped off by a pal (played very briefly by Douglas Hodge), could bring their secret clone program to light.

The digital technology that makes it possible for middle-aged Brogan to confront his whippersnapper clone might be impressive if most of the cast—even Clive Owen as Gemini’s evil founder—didn’t seem computer generated themselves. (The digital trickery involved Smith performing Brogan with the improbably named Victor Hugo as his stand-in clone, then switching roles and acting the youthful duplicate himself, in a performance-capture body suit and helmet.) The plot may sound appealing if you haven’t seen Smith’s reflexes dull to a genial blur in recent movies like Aladdin. In the press notes Lee says he wants “drama” and “levity” and “some kind of a wicked sense of humor to blend the two together.” He must not have let Smith in on the plan.

Smith won’t allow the rare comic breeze to ripple through his thick air of anguish. He doesn’t get any rhythm going with Benedict Wong, stranded in the sidekick role of Brogan’s longest surviving buddy and ace pilot, or with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who keeps searching for a persuasive way to humanize a DIA op. She starts out surveilling Brogan and becomes his unromantic ally. Whenever Winstead faces the youthful and middle-aged Smiths, I keep hoping she’ll sing, “They’re either too young or too old.” Smith’s Brogan acts so resolutely un-charming that when he talks her into a having a drink, it makes sense only because she’s paid to keep an eye on him. The long-awaited faceoff between Smith and Smith arrives with a whimper—and a glower—because the younger Smith, “Junior,” proves to be equally (and boringly) angsty and depressed.

After his eerily assured turn in Fred Schepisi’s masterly Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Smith became an action superstar because he integrated the spry self-awareness borne of rapping into chases and shootouts. He was at his best in this vein in Enemy of the State (1998). He became a formidable actor in movies from Ali (2001) to Concussion (2015) by drawing on the alertness honed in his sitcom years, then burrowing beneath it.

These days, Smith communicates neither fun nor excitement. I first became conscious of actors going through phases when, as a kid, I watched the effervescent Jack Lemmon of Mister Roberts and Some Like It Hot grow increasingly frantic, whether in comedies like The Fortune Cookie or in dramas like Save the Tiger; the performances became labored and the sparkle left his eyes. Something similar may be happening to Smith. In more lighthearted times, Winstead would give him a slap and order him to “snap out of it!” In Gemini Man,  Smith doesn’t even get to quote John Wayne from True Grit: “You remind me of me!” He fails to convey the delicious absurdity of a glorified hit man staring down the barrel of a callow version of himself.

Astonishingly, neither do Ang Lee and his expensive screenwriters: David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), and Darren Lemke (who got a story credit on this year’s delightful Shazam!). Lee has been publicizing Gemini Man as a showcase for the ultra-clarity of HFR (High Frame Rate) shooting. Lee and cinematographer Dion Beebe shot the film in 3D at 120 frames per second (instead of 24), with 4K resolution. They employ these tools to unsettling effect as a high-speed train whooshes through Belgium and when Brogan and Junior pursue each other on motorcycles through Cartagena, Colombia, then turn their bikes into weapons. But the immediacy and limpidity of HFR-4K-3D actually underline the clumsiness of the two Smiths’ hand-to-hand combat in Budapest, which unfolds in shadowy catacombs before splashing into a watery murk. The fatal anti-climax unfolds as HFR highlights the grinding mechanics of the good guys’ showdown with Gemini’s black-armored warriors clomping like RoboCops through small-town Georgia. HFR-4K-3D presents the Colombian and Hungarian locations as the height of postcard art, but when it comes to atmosphere, there’s zilch.

The real mystery here: How did Lee and such a gifted cast and crew end up with such a vacuum? The plot bumps along from one ludicrous turn or gaping hole to the next. Gemini Man relies on our movie-bred belief that experienced espionage agents retain access to vast resources even when they’re attempting to stay off the grid. (Actually, our three heroes don’t try too hard; at one point they hang out at a rooftop café.) The characters act so inexplicably or stupidly that it’s impossible to suspend disbelief. How exactly does Winstead’s canny op waltz Brogan out of a Colombian prison? We don’t get to see what must have been a miraculous negotiation. Would the supposed evil genius played by Owen, who has raised Junior as his adopted son, order him to take down Brogan, especially since he wants to keep the lad’s biological identity a secret? Brogan even asks Junior why his “dad” would send him out on this hit after telling him he’s an orphan. “Because I’m the best,” Junior says. Waving a gun in the lad’s face, Brogan replies, “You are obviously not the best!”

Talking up his technical advances, Ang Lee told an early screening audience that “the theatrical experience” should do “more than telling a story.” I agree—but Gemini Man manages to do less.

Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.