Ang Lee didn’t take it easy on himself by choosing Gemini Man to be his latest film pushing technological breakthroughs. He would’ve been forgiven if he had, following on the disastrous response to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which saw Lee breakout a high framerate production for a dull domestic drama. Gemini Man has been in the works for more than two decades with multiple filmmakers deciding it was basically an impossible job; the technology simply wasn’t there to support the doppelganger protagonists at the heart of the story. It can be argued the technology still isn’t there, given that no theaters can show Lee’s herculean effort to shoot the film at an unreal 120fps in 3D and 4K.
You don’t need all of the bells and whistles for Lee’s greatest spectacle, a 100% digitally-created Will Smith who looks like he just walked off the Fresh Prince of Bel Air set. It’s a monumental achievement that opens up some disturbing visions for what the future of filmmaking can be. I feel like we’re edging closer to The Congress than ever before. But once you get past the impressive shock of Smith numero dos, the story is pedestrian at best. A trio of good writers in Billy Ray, David Benioff, and Darren Lemke cobbled together a serviceable script that serves merely as foundation for the technology, yet is never strong enough to keep you from looking for flaws in Lee’s grand design.
Smith, still a charismatic and commanding presence, plays Henry Brogan, an elite government assassin who can snipe a target on a moving train from a mile away. But the years of killing have begun to worn on him, and he wants a way out. Henry says he’s been “avoiding mirrors lately”, which is ironic when his former employers send his literal mirror image to hunt him down to tie up loose ends.
The opening encounter between Henry and his would-be killer is a stunner, and par for the film’s mind-blowing action sequences. Lee plays fast and loose with the camera as Henry and Junior (his doppelganger’s name) spar on speeding motorcycles, the director keeping the focus squarely on the symmetry in their movements. It’s absolutely incredible and intense, lasting just long enough to not wear out its welcome. Their physical confrontations always play out this way, scary in the way Lee has captured Smith’s movements and recreated them down to the tiniest detail. It works just as well during a later fight in more enclosed circumstances.
When Henry and Junior have their verbal showdowns…well, things aren’t quite so hot there. No offense to Smith who carries around the weight of Henry’s guilt and tragedy like a pro, but his digital counterpart lacks the humanity (obviously) for their interactions to carry much weight. For all of Lee’s tinkering, Junior is still just a tad too perfect-looking, at least when slowed down and placed alongside real people. Junior, who reveals at one point that he’s calmest when flat on his belly about to pull the trigger, is also more believable when he’s at the business end of a weapon.
There’s not a huge supporting cast for Smith to deal with, but you can see the difference in how he converses with co-stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong than with Junior, who is unable to give him anything back emotionally. That said, just the visual of the 51-year-old Smith opposite his much-younger self is deeply powerful and compassionate. Winstead is always a welcome addition to any cast, as is Wong, both given more to work with than supporting sidekick characters usually receive. As a government agent roped into Henry’s deadly world, Winstead’s character becomes the catalyst for him to face the truth about what’s happening. Also in the cast is Clive Owen who, sadly, is playing the same generic bad guy he’s been far too often of late. I get it, he’s got the features to play a classic villain with delusions of grandeur (I recall his maniacal Larry in Closer) but it’s like Hollywood has forgotten he’s capable of more.
Lee can take pride that Gemini Man is the bold step forward he hoped it to be. While imperfect in Lee’s attempts at creating perfection, the breakthroughs he’s made are substantial and offer a different level of action experience, and Smith is the right actor to guide us through it. Until the technology ceases to be a distraction, movies like Gemini Man will continue to be just entertaining novelties.