Thanks to some strong work by Smith and its better set pieces, Gemini Man partly succeeds at overcoming its bland plot and occasionally iffy visuals.
Out of all the previous entries in Ang Lee's eclectic filmography, his newest movie, Gemini Man, hews the closest to his 2003 comic book adaptation Hulk. Both are based on inherently goofy sci-fi premises, feature gifted protagonists with daddy issues, and are hit-and-miss when it comes to their cutting-edge technical elements. Gemini Man has the simpler story and themes of the pair, but is less self-serious than Hulk and bolstered by its Will Smith performances. It's still too talky and slow for its own good, though, and is unlikely to change most people's feelings about high frame rate cinematography. Thanks to some strong work by Smith and its better set pieces, Gemini Man partly succeeds at overcoming its bland plot and occasionally iffy visuals.
Smith stars in Gemini Man as Henry Brogan, an elite but aging U.S. government assassin who decides to retire after growing disillusioned with his work. However, when he discovers his final job wasn't what it seemed, Henry finds himself being hunted by a mysterious and younger hitman whose skillset resembles his own. With help from a federal agent named Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and his old buddy Baron (Benedict Wong), Henry discovers the unsettling truth: this enigmatic killer is his 23-year old clone and a member of GEMINI, the top-secret black ops unit headed by Henry's former boss, Clayton Varris (Clive Owen). But can he get his younger self to see the truth before he makes the same mistakes as Henry did?
Gemini Man entered development in the late 1990s and ultimately passed through several directors, actors, and writers' hands before Lee signed on to call the shots with Smith starring in 2017. The original script by Darren Lemke (Shazam!) has since been revised by people like David Benioff and Bill Ray (who share writing credit with Lemke), but the final movie result still plays out like the sort of ridiculous high-concept thriller that was all the rage in the '90s. It's refreshing in a way, though, and gives the film's cast - especially Owen as the big bad Varris - room to ham it up while delivering loads of exposition and even a handful of one-liners. The problem is that Gemini Man's pulpier aspects tend to clash with Lee's more ruminative approach, giving rise to a movie that's never quite the thrill ride nor the reflective drama it wants to be.
For all the scenes of characters discussing what's happening and explaining their motivations, the actual plot of Gemini Man is very basic and doesn't dive all that deeply into the questions its setup raises about nature vs. nurture and what someone could teach the younger version of themselves (or vice versa). Admittedly, this does leave more space for the action, including a stylized shoot-out turned motorcycle chase sequence on the streets of Cartagena and an equally superhero-esque tussle between Henry and his clone that makes a mess of the poor catacombs in Budapest. Lee and his cinematographer Dion Beebe (Edge of Tomorrow) film the spectacle in a clean fashion, but the HFR photography (Gemini Man was shot digitally at 120 frames per second) makes it harder for them to disguise their moviemaking tricks and unintentionally calls attention to the moments where Smith has been replaced with a CGI double. It also requires natural lighting that muddles the scenes set at night (though a close-quarter fight featuring Winstead is still good enough to leave you excited to watch her suit up as Huntress in next year's Birds of Prey).
"Junior", aka. Henry's clone, is obviously Gemini Man's main attraction, but like the rest of the film he's a bit of mixed bag. The character is a completely digital creation brought to life by Smith through motion-capture (so, technically, the actor wasn't "de-aged" for the movie) and is frequently convincing, but still falls into the uncanny valley too often to fully work. He's an impressive feat of CGI all the same and shows just far that technology has come since it was used to transform Jeff Bridges into the zombie-faced CLU in TRON: Legacy nine years ago. Smith is the reason the effect works as well as it does, however, as he's able to distinguish the less experienced and more vulnerable "Junior" from the soulful and world-weary Henry with his facial mannerisms alone. His efforts are complimented by his costars' fine work here, with Wong especially bringing a welcome touch of humor and charm to the proceedings.
Despite its video game-style narrative (there's even a first person POV oner in a key moment), Gemini Man is arguably more successful - or, at the very least, more entertaining - than Lee's prior HFR filmmaking experiment, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Of course, it still has a lot of the same technical problems, and its effects aren't consistent enough to support the argument that digitally "de-aging" actors is a superior approach to simply casting two similar-looking people to play the same character (or them and their double) at different ages. Most theaters won't be screening Gemini Man at a high frame rate anyway, so all that element does is weaken a movie that otherwise benefits from being seen on the big screen (for those who're interested). And in the end, it means the film supports its own message - that you can't just replace someone with a newer and shinier version of themselves (literal or figurative) - in ways that are not entirely intentional.
Gemini Man is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 117 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language.
- Gemini Man (2019) release date: Oct 11, 2019