THE STORY – Henry Brogan is an elite assassin who becomes the target of a mysterious operative who can seemingly predict his every move. To his horror, he soon learns that the man who’s trying to kill him is a younger, faster, cloned version of himself.
THE CAST – Will Smith, Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen & Benedict Wong
THE TEAM – Ang Lee (Director), David Benioff, Billy Ray & Darren Lemke (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 117 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Where, oh where, to begin with “Gemini Man?” Ang Lee’s latest advanced-technology extravaganza had been languishing in development hell for around twenty years before he was hired to direct in 2017, and despite an army of Hollywood’s best and brightest (and hackiest) doing rewrites of Darren Lemke’s original concept/screenplay in the years since, it still plays like a relic of the 90s. This isn’t helped by having Will Smith, one of that decade’s defining action stars, as the headliner… especially since he’s playing opposite a thirty years younger version of himself thanks to the magic of motion capture and de-aging technology. But even more than that, the plot feels like what someone would write after seeing John Woo’s 1997 blockbuster “Face/Off” and snorting a ton of coke. Minus any of the fun that implies.
Smith plays Henry Brogan, an aging government sharpshooter/assassin who has decided to retire, as all the kills he’s racked up over the years have been taking a toll on his psyche. But after discovering that his last hit wasn’t actually who he was told it was, and he gets woken up that night by a squad of soldiers sent to kill him, he tracks down what leads he has. This puts him on a collision course with Clay Varris, Henry’s former commanding officer and the head of a top-secret black ops unit named “GEMINI”, who sends his top agent after Henry. But that top agent turns out to be a younger version of Henry himself, with all of Henry’s skills packed in a younger, stronger body.
The pacing of “Gemini Man” is strange, crawling like a sloth for the opening 10-15 minutes before playing out exactly like any other standard action flick for the rest of its running time: action scene, character scene, plot scene, wash, rinse, repeat. At least it has Will Smith in peak movie star mode at its center. Smith turns in a fantastic performance, giving Henry’s every move the heaviness of a man who has seen and done far too many things that keep him awake at night. He gives a similar quality to the younger clone (called “Junior” by Clive Owen’s Varris), as well, though it’s paired with the ferocity and energy of one still young enough to not get too bogged down by a little government-sanctioned killing. The rest of the cast is solid, too: Owen makes a great snarling villain, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong add a bit of spice as Smith’s sidekicks. But make no mistake: This is the Will Smith Show, and everybody knows it.
Except for maybe Ang Lee himself, who is far more impressed with High Frame Rate than seemingly anyone else on the planet. After the tonally misjudged failure of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” he’s come back to do, essentially, a non-comic version of “Hulk” in 120 fps. “Gemini Man” seems like an odd fit for the man who also made “Sense and Sensibility” and “Brokeback Mountain,” but his pet themes of identity, nature vs. nurture, and the regret of the aging are all present, which sheds some light on why he would be attached to this project. There’s even one fight scene late in the film where Lee manages to recapture some of that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” magic. But mostly he is concerned with the technical elements – how to light a scene and place the camera to get the most out of the added depth and “realism” of the high frame rate without compromising the effects on the younger Smith. But high frame rate 3D is used so rarely (this is the fifth feature-length English-language film since 2012 to be projected in HFR, and only the second to be shot and projected in 120 fps) that no one has really figured out how to do that yet. There are a few shots where everything looks like patently fake CGI added in post-production, and just like in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” there is exactly one scene where the high frame rate pays off, giving the audience an unbelievably intense experience that you simply can not get in standard projection. But Lee’s preference for this is baffling. No film released in high frame rate to date has been met with an overwhelmingly positive reception from critics OR audiences, with most complaining that, at best, it takes most of the film to get used to, and looks fake (and weirdly cheap) until that point. And surely a project as CGI-heavy as “Gemini Man” would set the level of difficulty – and the possibility of failure – even higher.
And yet, if there’s one thing about “Gemini Man” that can’t be denied, it’s that the de-aging effects on the younger Will Smith are virtually seamless. It is an undeniable thrill watching Will Smith fight a younger version of himself and it never looks anything less than 100% real. Their first meeting, set mostly in a motorcycle chase through Cartagena, and their second, set in an underground crypt in Budapest, are two of the best action sequences of the year in large part due to the pure movie-movie rush of watching Will Smith fight Will Smith (and some striking lighting and production design in Budapest). But even then, as fun as those sequences are, the high frame rate does nothing but call attention to itself, shouting “DOESN’T THIS LOOK REAL?” even though in some unclear but still noticeable way, it actually doesn’t always look real.
It’s hard to tell if the film would play better in standard projection, without that extra shot of digital enhancement. But in the end, no amount of technical wizardry can gloss over what “Gemini Man” is: A ‘90s reject given a fresh coating of shiny 2010s CGI. It may be dazzling at times, but the uneven pacing, stodgy script, and high frame rate drag it down. Will Smith boosts it as much as he can, but even he isn’t superpowered enough to completely drag this out of the digital muck.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A great performance from Will Smith, phenomenal visual effects and one hell of a chase sequence.
THE BAD – A by-the-numbers script that offers not a single interesting thing that we haven’t seen hundreds of times before. The preferred 120 frames per second High Frame Rate 3D projection is just as much of a curse as it is a blessing.