Film Review – Gemini Man
There was talk leading up to the release of Gemini Man (2019) involving the technical achievements that allowed it to come to life. Some of the talk regarded the 4K 3D cinematography, shot at 120 frames per second. The bigger buzz surrounded the CGI technology that de-aged actor Will Smith, turning the fifty-one-year-old man into someone that looked and sounded half his age. Advertisements touted the schtick of watching him fight the younger version of himself – you got two Will Smiths for the price of one.
After seeing the final product on the big screen, the achievement never came off all that impressively. There are moments where the younger Smith looked convincing, but they were aided by dimmed lightening. Notice how often the younger version is shown in darkness, with shadows helping to mask his face. When he is shown in full light (during day scenes) the result is so blatantly phony that he looks like a Pixar character. The production never got over the “Uncanny Valley” effect, where slight inconsistences in photo-realistic CGI become off putting to the audience. Yes, that is the real Will Smith acting as his younger self. No, not once was I fooled into believing it.
But none of the technical aspects amount to much given how lacking the story is. Smith plays Henry Brogan, a skilled government assassin whose specialty is executing potential enemies of the U.S. Burdened by age and a guilty conscience, Henry starts to contemplate retirement. That is, until a mission gone bad turned Henry into a target of his very own agency. On the run with fellow rogue agents Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Baron (Benedict Wong), Henry soon discovers that the person the agency tapped to take him down is Junior (also Smith) a genetically identical, younger version of himself.
When it comes strictly to the action, Gemini Man has some nice, cleanly shot set pieces. The first confrontation between Harry and Junior – an extended gunfight and motorcycle chase – has good choreography and a keen sense of geography. Henry and Junior navigate around rooftops and alleyways, anticipating each other’s movements. The camera extends back to wide angles during the motorcycle chase, capturing both characters weaving their way through narrow streets and crowded areas. It works almost like a dance with how Harry and Junior circle around one another. Given that they’re both the same person, each one knows how the other will attack. There are sillier moments – like when Harry throws a grenade at Junior only to have it bounce back at him with a perfectly aimed gun shot – but that doesn’t dampen how well made the scene is.
It’s not so much the action that is disappointing as is the overall narrative. Take away the old/young Will Smith gimmick, and we’re left with a clichéd story of an aging warrior brought back into the game by forces beyond his control. The dialogue is a collection of eyeroll inducing monologues, where characters dive into exposition detailing everything that is going on and exactly how they are feeling. Henry claims to be haunted by the ghosts of the people he killed, but he never show signs of emotional stress. Most of his interaction with Junior is simply telling him precisely what he is thinking and that it is ok to feel lost and confused. There is no subtlety in the screenplay (David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke) – everything is spoon fed to us, leaving no room for our own interpretations.
The supporting cast is made up of good actors who have nothing to do. Benedict Wong is funny as Henry’s old war buddy, but his contributions have him simply fly or drive Henry to his next destination. Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings charm as fellow agent Danny, but she’s relegated to the young recruit who follows Henry without hesitation. One of her most suspenseful scenes has her strip down to prove she isn’t wearing a wire. The moment feels needless and exploitative. Clive Owen shows up as Clay Varris, head of a top-secret unit that has ties to both Junior and Henry. Owen does what he can with the character but can’t escape being a simple foil to Henry. As I watched the film, I started to imagine Owen and Smith switching roles – now that would’ve been interesting to see.
Director Ang Lee has got to have one of the most varied careers of any filmmaker past or present. His oeuvre contains work that are embraced as critical achievements (Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) but stand next to entries that are divisive at best (Hulk). Gemini Man sadly falls into the latter category. While it may have some good action, the narrative momentum never builds in a way that makes us excited to see what will happen next. It just floats in place, relying on technology that isn’t as innovative or groundbreaking as publicized. No amount of digital magic can make up for a story that isn’t interesting or characters we don’t care about.