GEMINI MAN— 2 STARS
Ang Lee’s new actioner Gemini Man is the cinematic embodiment of the figure of speech “chasing your tail.” A reminder from The Free Dictionary, defines that idiom as “to take action that is ineffectual and does not lead to progress” and “refers to how a dog can exhaust itself by chasing its own tail.” Boy, is that ever this movie. You have a multiple Academy Award-winning filmmaker chasing a technological benchmark that the industry cannot match. And you have a lead actor exhausting himself (and us) literally, instead of just figuratively, chasing his own tail.
Graying through his temples and whiskers, Will Smith plays his authentic 51 years of age as ultra-professional government asset Henry Brogan. The old guard assassin wants peace after losing his “feel” and growing a conscience after completing his 72nd confirmed kill. Seafront solitude with a little boat awaits Henry in Buttermilk Sound, Georgia south of Savannah. After demonstrating his chops in the opening scene, Smith’s confident exasperation and desire for this slowdown fits the actor’s appeal.
LESSON #1: “TO THE NEXT WAR, WHICH IS NO WAR” — This quote is Henry Brogan’s shared signature toast with his former brothers-in-arms from the old Persian Gulf and Somalia days, which include Jack (Red Sparrow’s Douglas Hodge) and Baron (Benedict Wong of Doctor Strange. The vibe is two-fold. First, there’s a celebration of success in making the world a better place with each dispatched despot and a survivalist wish of someday putting the bullets and triggers away.
Sure enough, retirement is short-lived when Henry learns he was fed spiked intel where the mark he sniped was someone of a less criminal background than he was told. Brogan and Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, bringing only middling sidekick value), the burned babysitter agent who helps him, become loose-ends for erasure by the order of their head government spook employer Clay Verris (Clive Owen, dialed to 50% intensity). Globetrotting from Georgia and Cartagena in the Western Hemisphere to Belgium and Budapest in the eastern one, the chase is on.
The salt-grained rub is Henry’s indomitable opponent at every stop is someone younger, stronger, and faster with recognizable facial features and training. Over 20 years ago when cloning was the rage, Verris used Henry’s DNA as a test to create an experimental line of expendable soldiers packaged with fewer human flaws and more programmed discipline. The force matching Henry’s every movie is his 23-year-old homegrown duplicate raised by Verris as his own adoptive son and following his every command.
LESSON #2: SO MUCH FOR SUN TZU — Paraphrasing, knowing your enemy better than you know yourself is quickly derailed when your enemy is you. Insert the Dramatic Chipmunk, but watch out for the groan-inducing “clones are still people too” and “they get choices too” wet blanket lessons that preach and follow. Gemini Man becomes a battle of seasoned wisdom versus the superior vigor of youth. Brains tend to always beat brawn, and you can see the end result a continent away.
Through de-aging special effects and digital doubles, Smith plays and voices his own “Junior.” This glaze, if you will, is very well done compared to other incarnations we’ve seen with this performance technology. Most of the time, mouths and expressions match with minimal, though noticeable, creepiness. It takes some getting used to, but it’s still Will Smith. Like most of his duds over the course of the last decade, the fit action star is never the movie’s problem.
Plenty of keen and sleek aesthetics are fair to compliment here. The team of stunt coordinator Brad Martin (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and fight choreographer Jeremy Marinas (The Fate of the Furious) executed action sequences that are kinetic and often clever. Two-time production design Oscar nominee Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception, Passengers) and the art departments created vast arenas for these battles out of the worldly locales. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Chicago) shot them bright and tight while long-time Lee editing collaborator and fellow two-time Oscar nominee Tim Squyres (Life of Pi) stitched the work together with deft pacing.
Much ballyhoo is being made about the high frame rate shooting used to enliven all this action. Matching his 2016 effort on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee shot this film in full 4K HD for large scale 3D at a 120 fps clip, exponentially higher than the standard 24 fps rate. Good luck finding a theater or setting that can do Gemini Man full justice. There’s not a single theater screen in the country that can perform all three of those specifications and only 14 than can hit the 3D and the frame rate without the 4K HD. Cue your shrug of disappointment.
We can admire Lee for aiming towards new technological heights, but this reeks of hubris over smarts. Upwards of $136 million is a great deal of money and effort to waste on what amounts to an artistic STEM experiment where the intended visual detail and sensory effect will be lost on over 99% of audiences. If home viewing is the second wave of hope for this wannabe blockbuster to make an impression, even the current 4K HD televisions will have a difficult time hitting those technical specifications.
It is unfortunately understandable that this film probably could not be marketed to the masses without revealing the younger doppelganger crux. What a shame. Such a discovery should have been built as a jarring jaw-dropper rather than a foregone conclusion. The trouble is too often production secrets like that cannot be dependably kept safe in this day and age of scoop culture. That and, if you hold your bucket of popcorn to your ear, you can probably still hear the short-sighted marketing gurus at Paramount clamoring that two Will Smiths are better than one. This is not the 1990s or early 2000s Will Smith anymore. He was lucky with Aladdin but he’s not an A-list draw.
Gemini Man could have been something far greater if it traded much of that polish for punch. Other than the inventiveness of the action, there is zero to few potential thrills to be had when you can see every spot coming. The look is all there, right down to the close-up shot selection framed to capture the steely moments ripe for emotional stamping. There’s just no storytelling strength behind those hard stares. One of the mano-y-mano moments in the movie lets loose the clunker of a line “none of this is necessary” and it feels self-incriminating.
This original premise, scripted out by Game of Thrones czar David Benioff and Goosebumps writer David Lemke with a revision from Billy Ray of Captain Phillips, feels very much like a low-end Philip K. Dick concept. A hero is in minor peril wrapped in easy clues with the lightest whiff of unexplored science fiction floating in the background. There is a market for that to a degree. Preposterousness can work around being ambiguous and ill-defined if it has an interesting edge (look no further than the best of Dick). Gemini Man, with all its finely sharpened pixels, cannot lacerate our enthusiasm.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#830)