There’s a way to build a review around Gemini Man that summons the thought of what it would mean to be challenged by an older or younger version of yourself, and how it could change your worldview. Unfortunately, I never got the feeling writers David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke paid too much attention to coming up with exciting moral, psychological, or even philosophical challenges when exploring the idea of a man meeting his younger clone. Instead, two-time Oscar-winning director Ang Lee and superstar Will Smith combined their talents to allow a reasonably bland action movie to become more interesting than it should be.
Based on a story concept that has gone through various iterations and directors for twenty years, the basic premise is something fittingly 90s in terms of the high concept and stakes. Smith is Henry Brogan, an aging government assassin. He’s the best at what he does, so of course, the second something goes wrong, the shadowy sector of the government that employs Henry sends men out to kill him. The professional assassin is good enough to avoid these initial attempts, but things take a turn when Henry realizes he’s being hunted by a younger version of himself.
It is easy enough to see that Lee came onto this film to show off what he could do with all of the visual effects and camera technology at his disposal. Sure, it takes a bit to get to the introduction of the younger Henry, who has been dubbed “Junior” by his father figure and head of the evil government-funded corporation, Clive Owen, but there’s more to take in. As with his previous feature, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Lee has once again chosen to utilize 3D and shoot digitally at the extra-high frame rate of 120 frames per second. It’s a bold choice that undoubtedly adds a unique feel to the film.
Once again, however, I find myself at odds with what I take away with these experiences. Gemini Man is the most comfortable I’ve felt watching a film at a higher framerate; certainly more so than The Hobbit films, though the presentation better matched what Lee was going for thematically when it came to Billy Lynn. That being said, for a vapid action movie, Lee takes advantage of the clear and crisp digital photography by incorporating a few dynamic action sequences that play well with the use of lighting, stunts, and visual trickery to keep viewers in the moment and show off some proper fights.
A foot chase through Columbia turns into a wild motorcycle race through the streets, concluding with one Will Smith beating up the other with the bike itself. Another sequence has the two pummeling each other in a catacomb location in Budapest. Both scenes utilize the time of day to help show off just how thrilling action sequences can be when captured in this hyper-realistic manner. With extreme detail on display, thanks to how the HFR challenges filmmakers to be sure their production design is as authentic as possible, there’s an immaculateness that comes with the production.
Fortunately, utilizing this camera format didn’t feel as though the cinematic value of the film was being removed. Perhaps it’s due to having someone like Smith star in a movie so dedicated to a very familiar story. There’s a comfort in a narrative that presents so few surprises, I suppose. I only wish Gemini Man came alive more from a story perspective.
As it stands, there is a lot of bad dialogue and stiff performances outside the central cast, which made me wish for the past days of a Jerry Bruckheimer production (he’s one of several credited producers here), where the audience would at least have a large assortment of colorful character actors to fill in the gaps between action sequences. While Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong each bring the required amount of confidence to their roles, and play them well, there was a real lack of life compared to similar features that could squeeze in folk such as Steve Buscemi, Joe Pantoliano, or Keith David in secondary roles to make all the standard exposition feel more exciting upon delivery.
However, let’s say the audience is purely here to see two Will Smiths for the price of one. Well, this is delivered, and it is a real highlight for the feature. Regardless of how much Gemini Man feels like an unmemorable placeholder in the grand scheme of things until James Cameron or whoever comes along to truly blow audiences away with a more successful application of this cinematic innovation, the visual effects to bring a younger Smith to life are astounding.
As opposed to merely de-aging Smith akin to what has been seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, for example, a combination of methods were applied that can be more accurately compared to Andy Serkis’ Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes films. As a result, Gemini Man delivers an incredibly faithful version of a Smith who looks as though he’d been plucked out of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and dropped into a very conventional hitman thriller. I described a scene where the two of them pummel each other earlier, and it’s all the more impressive to see that play out with all the different lighting elements, and closeups, without ever seeing a break in the realism of that moment.
Even better is seeing Lee working to achieve a real performance out of Smith, even if the film’s script is so far below the talents of both of them. Even more of a takedown than what we see in some of the fights is a scene where the older Henry breaks down what kind of person he knows his younger self was/is. Another scene has to build a believable level of emotion in a CG version of Smith and sell the audience on the legitimacy of the emotion. It’s these moments that truly spoke to how Lee seems to have found a proper hold in the areas that make sense for him.
Some moments simply speak to the kind of humanistic filmmaker Lee can be. Gemini Man is never out and out funny, but Smith has that movie star charisma that doesn’t just go away, and Wong is always a welcome presence. Along with Winstead, once scene finds the three of them just hanging out at a spa and discussing the plot, while in robes, having drinks. Another brief shot sees Wong enjoying a cigar, while a tropical bird starts pecking around beside him. Clive Owen does a lot of capital “A” villain acting, but the persona he has crafted requires nothing but black clothing, and even a black Tesla to add further unsubtle implications. What I’m saying is that Gemini Man has a level of personality that makes it a bit more big-hearted than your average action film, even if some of the filler scenes feel a bit bland.
Maybe having an unassuming nature in some instances works in favor of the extremes Gemini Man goes to have audiences on board with the highly visual elements it needs to not feel out of place. Regardless, the film earns its slight passing grade thanks to the cinematic ambitions Lee is pushing himself with, and the effort put in by Smith, who does impressive work here. The story is nothing new, with only a passing interest in the ramifications of cloning, and the characters all operate the way one would expect. However, even if a lot of what works in this film’s favor is best experienced on the big screen, a director taking advantage of what capabilities are out there to work with in a movie like this is enough to declare worthwhile.