In Gemini Man, its Will Smith versus his clone. Photograph from Paramount Pictures.
Culture Movies

Review: Ang Lee mostly succeeds with ‘Gemini Man,’ but mostly because of his star

In his latest film where a new special effects machine seems to provide the impetus to making a movie, the versatile helmsman fares better—but he’s got a lot to thank Will Smith for.
Andrew Paredes | Oct 13 2019

Directed by Ang Lee

Starring Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen

Ang Lee always seems to be driven to prove how versatile he is, and a quick survey of his IMDb filmography would seem to be evidence enough that the director can do anything. But something strange has been happening since 2012’s Life of Pi: That visual effects-heavy film’s bountiful harvest of Oscars (including one for Ang himself) seemed to have given the director license to pursue shiny technological gewgaws—and so far the results have been middling.

I guess you might call this conflict in Gemini Man as "man against himself."

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His next film, 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (which also introduced the world to the current Mr. Taylor Swift, Joe Alwyn), came across as nothing more than a test run for the Taiwanese filmmaker to try out a new machine called 120 frames-per-second photography. Take a small-scale concept—in this case, a soldier coming home on leave and dealing with his post-traumatic stress during a hero’s welcome—and try out this new technology that would theoretically smooth out the visual judder of conventional 24 frames-per-second. What we actually ended up with was a nothing story made even more insubstantial by its cold technological sheen.

Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, an operative at a fictional government shop.

Lee fares much better with his technological gambits in Gemini Man—but just barely. That’s because the director seems to have sussed out that the best way to use motion-smoothing technology is starting with a story that requires a lot of motion. On top of that, he’s hit upon a concept that makes full use of a technology that’s been getting a lot of ink lately: de-aging visual effects.

In Gemini Man, Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, an operative at a fictional government shop with the appropriately generic-sounding name of Defense Intelligence Agency. After assassinating an alleged bio-terrorist, Henry announces to his handler (Ralph Brown) that he is hanging up his sniper scope. Almost instantaneously, black-ops gunmen are converging outside his house on the Georgia coast, and when Henry dispatches them, a younger, flat-topped version of Henry soon comes after him. Although the film sets it up as a startling revelation, it comes off as anything but: It turns out that Henry’s former superior, a ruthless ex-Marine named Clay Verris (Clive Owen, cutthroat in both character and portrayal), has cloned his most efficient assassin, and has now sicced Henry’s clone against him.

Clive Owen plays a ruthless ex-Marine.

Among the technological marvels Lee experiments with, his foray into de-aging VFX pays the most dividends, and he owes a lot of that to his lead star. Smith has great chemistry with, well, himself: He plays both sides of the equation well, painstakingly laying down a paternal dynamic between a world-weary version of himself against his cocky but vulnerable younger self. (It’s a testament to Smith’s instinctive smarts that he imbues his resurrected Fresh Prince avatar with a voice that’s a few decibels higher.) As for the 120 fps photography, you see hints of it in a breathtaking chase sequence that starts in a colorful villa in Cartagena, progresses through roads and alleys, and ends along a Pacific coastal byway where Smith the younger essentially uses a motorcycle as a weapon against Smith the elder. But until local cineplexes integrate 120 fps technology into their projectors, these visual marvels will literally fly over the heads of local audiences.

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Having said that, Gemini Man stumbles at a pretty basic element: its story. At many points, Gemini Man feels like a throwback to ‘90s action movies, a time before the Jason Bournes and the Daniel Craig-era James Bonds—where the motives of the protagonist weren’t as suspect as his adversaries’. You can see a hint of the script’s 20-year trip through development hell in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s role as fellow operative Danny Zakarewski, who gets sucked into Henry’s travails after being assigned to surveil him: Danny feels like an aborted romantic interest turned into platonic colleague as a nod to the 21st century’s keen consciousness of political correctness. But the film’s biggest weakness lies in its central relationship—the protagonist with his younger self—which starts out poignant (again, mostly thanks to Smith) then becomes bizarre at its climax and then bizarrely mawkish during an extended epilogue

All in all, Gemini Man is just an okay actioner, inoffensive in its narrative glitches but pale compared to Ang’s Wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hopefully, Gemini Man is just another experimental blip in Ang’s filmography, a step towards a future film melding technological mastery and solid narrative.

 

Photograph from Paramount Pictures.