Gemini ManReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/14/19 13:46:04
It's a testament to the core idea of "Gemini Man" - both in terms of being something that would be fun for audiences to see on-screen and the foundation on which you can build a solid story - that work on it never really stopped over the past twenty-odd years, long enough to have originally been planned with Tony Scott directing Harrison Ford (or at least, those are the earliest names I can recall being attached) and the necessary visual effects technology just out of reach. The gestation period has been just long enough for its gimmick to go from revolutionary to almost commonplace, with the script probably being revised just enough times to sand a few too many rough edges off but still have the film remain interesting.It opens with Defense Intelligence Agency sniper Henry Brogan (Will Smith) making a near-impossible kill shot, one he decides should be his last for how close it came to also killing an innocent child. He should, perhaps, have retired a week early, as an old colleague hints that the target was not a terrorist after all. That makes him a target, with DIA bigwig Janet Lassiter (Linda Emond) initially sending a conventional assault team - which Henry and Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the unknowing agent surveilling him, are able to escape with the help of another old friend, Baron (Benedict Wong). That leads to Lassiter and defense contractor Clay Verris (Clive Owen) pulling out their secret weapon: Junior, an assassin who may be Henry's match because he is Henry's clone.
This film could probably have been made with two actors who bear some resemblance to each other; movies have been doing that as long as there have been movies, although they seldom ask the audience to buy into the pair acting against each other, something that's still asking for trouble with digital de-aging. Fortunately, the artists and technicians involved with creating Junior are able to rise to the challenge - he doesn't quite look exactly like the Will Smith of the early 1990s, but some of that is context; the "Fresh Prince"-era version of Smith that Junior is meant to evoke seldom did the sort of heavier material he's got to handle here. It's convincing enough, though; one's brain recognizes Junior as a younger version of Henry and doesn't reject him when they are on the same screen together. Relatively invisible details help to sell it, too: Smith and whoever the sound crew make his voice sound 23 rather than 51, and stand-in Victor Hugo seems to capture the right gait and body-language.
It's a nifty trick that's all the more effective because Smith is a guy who was famous when he was young but had a very different look, but there's also something very powerful about coming face to face with oneself as one was or could be by staying on the same path. The way that director Ang Lee comes at this part of the movie is interesting but fraught with risk, in that Henry talks about how he can't sleep or look in mirrors without Lee and Smith actually showing it directly, and it can feel like Smith operating on cruise control. It's probably true to his character - he couldn't be an effective assassin without the ability to compartmentalize - but it means that the audience has to be a bit more alert for what's in his voice when he's talking to Junior, and it puts the brunt of the emotion on a visual effect as Junior is more likely to wear his heart on his sleeve. It's good work from all involved, but also more muted than one one might expect from a big, high-concept sci-fi movie that has room to be operatic.
Everything around that central bit of inspiration is similarly less creative than one might hope. The screenplay seldom budges from the "former operative on the run" template, with the expected detours into photogenic locations and supporting characters who fill a function rather than add something of their own to the film or even work off Henry and Junior in interesting ways (Benedict Wong at least gets to be occasionally funny as Henry's pilot friend, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead has her second thankless role in a film written by Darren Lemke in as many weeks). Clive Owen's villain is understated in the same way as Will Smith's hero, his greatest acts of cruelty described rather than shown, but a calculating amorality in his voice if you know what to listen for, even if he is too good at this to actually lose his cool at any point.
There also aren't quite as many big action scenes as one might expect, but that's not wholly a bad thing; Lee and his team leave themselves plenty of room to have Henry and company ponder the situation they're in, and the action he does stage is done to impressive effect: In Columbia, you can see the mental and emotional chess match where neither Henry nor Junior wants anyone else to get hurt but Junior is able to leverage this to box Henry in. There's a real emphasis on how smart and surgical they are compared to the brute-force tactics Verris eventually employs, good enough to make one want more.
They also highlight the unusual way Gemini Man was shot and in some cases exhibited. Though no theaters in North America are equipped for the 3D/4K/120 frame-per-second file that Douglas Trumbull's MAGI system creates, the 60fps "3D+" presentation is a fascinating if at times disorienting experience, a breathtakingly clear 3D image with almost none of the motion blur that over a century of cinema at 24fps has trained the viewer to expect. It helps sell Junior in that the FX team doesn't have to add another layer of artifice on top of him when he moves quickly, and a couple of moments like a transition out of a drowning nightmare are strikingly beautiful, but the movie is almost over by the time the audience gets used to the way it looks.It makes for a strange paradox: In every other respect, "Gemini Man" is the exact sort of decent action thriller that doesn't necessarily suffer too much when it makes its way to smaller screens, but there's no physical home-video format that can capture its look, which will probably put a heck of a strain on streaming services even if they can technically pump it out. It's too good to dismiss but not quite worth the effort it asks of the audience.
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