Gemini Man (2019)
Who will save you from yourself?
What a difference a couple of decades makes.
Twenty-two years, to be precise — that’s how long Gemini Man has been in development, having first come to wide attention back in 1997 as a high concept spec script by Darren Lemke, Shazam! (2019). The concept — aging assassin is hunted by a younger, more capable clone of himself — demanded special effects techniques well beyond the contemporary status quo, which is why the project passed through many, many hands, the script being rewritten by, at one time or another, Billy Ray, Andrew Niccol, David Benioff, Brian Helgeland, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson. Potential stars came and went — Harrison Ford, Chris O’Donnell, Mel Gibson, Jon Voight, Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Sean Connery — and directors too — Tony Scott, Curtis Hanson, Joe Carnahan. The development process on this one, was, as the kids say, extra.
But now it’s here! Finally ushered into existence under the auspices of director Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Gemini Man sees Will Smith in the main role of government hitman Henry Brogan, who, at the age of 51, decides to hang up his guns only to find himself pursued across the globe by a relentless killer who turns out to be (no spoilers, it’s in all the marketing material) an exact duplicate of him, raised to be a perfect killer by shady private military company honcho Clay Verris (Clive Owen). Verris has plans for an army of similar clones going into military hotspots around the world, soaking up bullets that would otherwise find their way into red-blooded American boys and girls. Brogan would rather be fishing, or perhaps on a date with rather chaste quasi-love interest Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), another government agent caught up in the action.
It’s interesting to meditate on what the late, great Tony Scott or John Woo, whose 1997 flick Face/Off is superficially similar, would have made of this material back in the day. Certainly, the script seems dated; no matter how many sets of fingerprints are on it, the whole affair feels extremely ’90s from concept to dialogue to execution. If you’re in a particularly forgiving or nostalgic mood, that might not be a deal-breaker, but a quick glance at John Wick: Chapter 3 (2019), Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), or anything fast and/or furious will unequivocally demonstrate how far the language of action cinema has come since Gemini Man was first decanted. Lee, a ridiculously talented director who has rarely hit the same genre twice, seems to have met his match in the form of the once-ubiquitous Jerry Bruckheimer-produced high concept action vehicle. While there are some standout moments — the motorcycle chase/ fight sequence through the streets of Cartagena, Colombia is a banger — this feels like a real throwback in terms of conceptual sophistication. The action sequences lack their own internal narrative structures, and the choreography is generally quite flaccid. Hard to believe this could be said about the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — and Ride with the Devil (1999), which you should track down — but it seems Lee has no intuitive feel for action — or at least, action of this particular stripe.
Paradoxically, this rather dusty action is brought to us with the most cutting-edge cinema technology currently available, with Lee revisiting the 120 frames-per-second 3D (3D+, they’re calling it) he employed in his last film, 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk. What that means in practice is a clarity to the action that is at times absolutely breathtaking — every pore, every bead of sweat clearly visible on the big screen, every swing of a weapon and flurry of blows cleanly delineated. The tradeoff seems to be — unless this is purely a deliberate choice — everything looking over lit. At times this is welcome — the colorful streets of Cartagena really pop. At other points the film suffers from the same ‘TV soap’ look that plagued Peter Jackson’s Hobbit flicks, although at least we can’t plainly see the joins and seams on the prosthetic makeup in this one.
And that’s because instead of prosthetic makeup being employed in a manner similar to that used to turn Joseph Gordon Levitt into a young Bruce Willis in Looper (2012), we have a completely (well, mostly — somebody’s certainly punching somebody in all those fighting scenes) digital character in the form of Brogan v2.0, aka Junior, aka Little Willy (okay, that last one’s just me).
The effect is … variable. Initially, there’s a sense of artificiality arising out of the viewer’s simple knowledge that the character we’re seeing just cannot be a real human, especially given that he’s often acting opposite the genuine article. He also doesn’t quite look like young will Smith, at least as far as my recall of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96) can tell.
But then the story hits its stride, and the acceptance of the character’s existence within the world of the film kicks in, buoyed by Smith’s considerable talents as a performer and sheer charisma. There’s a scene between Junior and his adoptive father, Clay, that has real emotional weight and depth, and you come around to the idea that this ‘virtual actor’ thing might have some utility.
And then you’ll get an action beat where Junior’s body seems weirdly weightless, or there’ll be an odd blankness to the eyes or the shift of expression isn’t quite on point, and you realize that we’re not quite there yet. I personally don’t have the technical nous to explain how what’s happening here is different from the digital characters and de-aging techniques used in other blockbusters, and perhaps it’s the interplay between the 3D+ camera technology and the digital effects work that lets the side down from time to time, but the effect on the viewer is unmistakable — we’re taken out of the action.
It’s a damn shame because Lee is among a handful of A-list filmmakers really committed to pushing the envelope when it comes to film technology, and he’s messing around with new techniques and toys that alter the very way we experience cinema, and some of the underlying but essentially meaningless collective assumptions we have about how movies are supposed to look and feel. We really need guys at the top end willing to try the occasional Hail Mary pass to advance the state of the art; otherwise, cinema is doomed to be lapped by computer gaming, VR, AR, and other forms of entertainment whose fundamentals aren’t as set in stone.
But not all experiments are successful.
Gemini Man ultimately doesn’t work because, although its technical achievements are commendable, its narrative and formal choices are mired in the past. I’m not comfortable throwing shade at Ang Lee (he’s a genius-level filmmaker, and you could do worse than spend a couple of weekends hammering through his entire back catalog) but I’m reminded of certain times when ‘prestige’ directors have occasionally slummed it in the genre ghettoes, particularly horror, under the presumption that their Academy-approved chops will see them through the ‘lesser’ demands of pulp cinema with little to no extra attention or adjustment on their part. It almost never, ever pays off, and it certainly doesn’t work here. There’s no anima to Gemini Man; like the lab-born assassin around whom its plot revolves, it has no reason to exist beyond the sheer technical achievement involved in bringing it to life; unlike Junior, it never finds one either.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Travis Johnson