Ang Lee's tech-heavy action film, featuring a dual performance by Will Smith, is never quite sure what it's trying to be

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Two Will Smiths aren't better than one.

In the dour "Gemini Man," Smith plays a top government assassin who is stalked by his younger, faster clone. It's like if the 51-year-old Smith of today was visited by "the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," minus, well, the fun parts. 

Director Ang Lee, working with screenwriters David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, crafts an action picture that hints at a soul beneath its surface, but in the end is just a digital facsimile of something deeper. Send this one back to the lab for retooling.

Smith is Henry Brogan, the best of the best when it comes to elite-level marksmen of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He’s got 17 kills under his belt but feels his skills slipping when he takes out a target with a neck shot rather than a clean bullet to the head. He wants out before he falls any further. The DIA has other plans.

Henry quickly gets the drop on the tracker, Danny Zakarewski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the DIA sends to keep an eye on him. This puts her in danger, so Henry convinces her to head to Colombia with him where they plan to lay low. No such luck.

Soon Henry finds himself being chased down by an unstoppable killing machine who looks a lot like – well, exactly like – a younger version of himself. Coincidence? Nah. Henry 2.0, who goes by Junior, is part of a clandestine clone program instituted by Clay Verris (Clive Owen in full-on seething mode), who wants to build an army of Henrys.

And why does he want to build an army of Henrys? Fair question, and it’s one that “Gemini Man” doesn’t address until far too late in the game. Clay thinks it’s better to send cloned assassins off to war, rather than putting the lives of young soldiers in danger. No more military funerals, no more vets coming home with PTSD. He wants to take the human element out of war, which seems like a totally sensible and forward-thinking plan. And this is your bad guy?

As for the younger Will Smith, played by a completely digital composite, the technology is about 80 percent there. For the most part the character is believable and looks like a flesh-and-bone Will Smith. But during action sequences his rendering is jumpy, like a “Grand Theft Auto” character who escaped from the game, and in human moments he has difficulty emoting. Good news for actual age Will Smith: his job is safe — for now, at least.

Director Lee, whose best work comes in deeply felt character dramas (“Brokeback Mountain,” “The Ice Storm”), has been on a tech bender in recent years, between “Life of Pi” (the 3-D adventure that won him an Oscar for Best Director) and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (which was filmed in an extremely high frame rate that couldn’t be properly exhibited at most theaters).

“Gemini Man” is another effects-heavy roll of the dice, but it doesn’t play to Lee’s strengths, and you can see him trying to make a quiet film in the midst of all the chaos. This is territory better left to James Cameron or even John Woo, who played with similar themes of duality in “Face/Off.”

“Gemini Man” doesn’t know what it wants. One on hand it’s an action extravaganza pushing the boundaries of special effects, on the other it’s a science fiction experiment exploring the edges of humanity. Like the character at its center, it’s at war with itself.

'Gemini Man'

GRADE: C

Rated PG-13: for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language

Running time: 117 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

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