Ang Lee seems hellbent on sloughing down a technological cul-de-sac to the point of creative obscurity, in much the same way Robert Zemeckis enmired himself in the mirage of motion capture for a decade. Lee previously experimented with higher frame rates on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, to the rapt aversion of those who saw it in its intended form – 48, 60 or 120 fps have generally gone down like a bag of cold sick, just ask Peter Jackson – and the complete indifference of most of the remaining audience, for whom the material held little lustre. Now, he pretty much repeats that trick with Gemini Man. At best, it’s merely an “okay” film – not quite the bomb its Rotten Tomatoes score suggests – which, (as I saw it) stripped of its distracting frame rate and 3D, reveals itself as just about serviceable but afflicted by several insurmountable drawbacks.
I remember Gemini Man’s first announcement back in the ’90s, when Tony Scott was involved (back in the days of Samsonite Warhead – maybe that will get resuscitated next?) I liked the basic concept, even if I’d rather have seen a big screen version of Ben Murphy with his (in)visibility watch. The problem, however, is that once you get past the flashy premise, what are you going to do with it? Particularly if the flashiest part of the premise – an aging star made youthful – is entirely squandered by dodgy casting and iffy effects.
Everyone has pointed this out from the first announcement, but a young version of a fifty-year-old who could easily pass for 35 is as redundant as attempting to achieve that effect by – rather than de-aging tech that has been quite decent in the MCU, with the likes of Michael Douglas and Sam Jackson – creating a virtual double of the lead, one who moves and expresses himself unflatteringly like a video game facsimile of said star.
It isn’t that young Will Smith doesn’t look like Fresh Prince era Smith; I twig the intent behind making him a younger version of Henry Brogan, Smith’s character. It’s that Junior suffers all the issues preventing one from believing in him as a real person that have dogged such attempts historically (the dead eyes, the not-quite-interacting facial expressions – I kept thinking of Arnie’s model head in Total Recall – the action sequences where he just moves too damn fast).
Even all that aside, and you’re back with the gimmick. When the idea was an Air Force One Harrison Ford versus his American Graffiti self, or better still (given that, in contrast to Smith, he’d aged considerably in only about fifteen years) a Conspiracy Theory Mel Gibson versus his Mad Max 2 incarnation, there was cachet (best of all would have been a Fistful of Dollars Clint Eastwood versus an Unforgiven Clint Eastwood). What would that be like? With Smith, you instantly pull the rug from under the major selling point. It does, however, figure as these things go; his attempts to flex his movie star muscles have been incredibly mixed of late. He’s proved people still want to see him, but that’s in spite of resolutely mediocre material.
Moving past the star/part mismatch, what do you do with the old hit man versus his younger self idea that Looper hasn’t already? Looper didn’t really fulfil its potential for me, floundering with its muddled time-travel conception and stalling in respect of the direction it took the drama, but it did make a decent stab at delivering two versions of the same character, thirty-odd years apart. The problem Gemini Man faces is that Junior is fundamentally uninteresting, even beyond the visual rendering that saps Smith’s buttoned-down performance of any charisma.
As older Henry, Will brings his natural charm and is easily able to fill in the less-than-sketchy character. Which means the first forty minutes or so, before Junior is introduced as a person in his own right, offer an engaging on-the-run conspiracy thriller, Smith delivering a more capable version of his Enemy of the State target for termination (“Who couldn’t kill a man on a train from two kilometres away?”) Owen’s character comments of the efficacy of the teams dispatched to kill Smith “It’s like watching the Hindenburg crash into the Titanic”, but that might better apply to the plot choices after they’re out of the picture.
If the writers (the screenplay is credited to David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, but many others also took a stab at it across two decades, including Andrew Niccol, Brian Helgeland and Jonathan Hensleigh, making it all the more curious that it’s so bereft of polish or plot coherence) had stuck with this, of an unstoppable Terminator-like assassin out to off Smith, Gemini Man might have sustained itself. There’s some engaging action in the first half, not least a motorbike pursuit that has an immediacy of impact despite the virtual double elements, so Lee is clearly no slouch in that department.
Unfortunately, the decision was made to build Junior as a sympathetic character in his own right. In what seems like no time at all, he’s been persuaded to forsake “dad” (Clive Owen, continuing to evidence that, on the big screen at least, he’s being fed scraps and impressing no one with them). It might have worked better had they gone for the nurture rather than nature angle and had him remain a steely-eyed psycho and not revealed as an inherently good guy.
It certainly would have made the latter half of the picture what it really needed to be; relentless and pulse-pounding. Instead, it rather sags, and features knuckle-headed gaps in credibility; Will and co keep wondering how it is that Junior shows up wherever he goes, failing even to consider that he might have had a tracking chip implanted unbeknownst. A second clone is introduced very late on, who is a bad Junior, having had his emotions redacted, but the impact of this is very limited (I rather hoped he’d be revealed as a young Owen, which would at least have been something different).
Another plotting issue is the abysmal resolution. In the early stages, the straightforward ’90s-ish (funny, that) approach to the storytelling is quite refreshingly old school, but the decision to wrap everything in a bow is absurd: Dani (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) gets her job back, dead dad Clive was just one bad apple (honest!), the cloning programme is shut down (honest!), there are no more clones (honest!), Junior is allowed to lead a normal life like any average stone-cold killer clone would (yeah, right), and Henry’s able to sleep again (because all those deaths – “Seventy-two kills, Del. That shit starts to mess with you after a bit” – no longer play on his mind, not now he’s killed the guy he blames for his being a killer). Good grief.
Gemini Man suggests Henry was cloned the year before Dolly the Sheep was announced, which is more than likely giving too much benefit of the doubt to the (conspiracy) theory that any advances in science will only filter into the public consciousness at best a decade or two after they have been actualised. Certainly, if the tales of underground bases of cloned celebrity fight clubs are anything to go by (which come complete with their own logic for the production not being able to utilise a younger Will Smith clone).
Winstead, like Smith, is able to lend a degree of personality to an empty shell of a role, although she also fares better before Junior impresses himself upon the proceedings. Benedict Wong is good value as the rumpled sidekick, until he gets unceremoniously and unnecessarily blown up. Douglas Hodge and Ralph Brown also provide much needed sparks of life in supporting roles.
The biggest takeaway from Gemini Man isn’t so much its averageness as incredulity that Paramount were willing to compound their woes – albeit, all the major studios aside from Disney have similar woes, most due to Disney, but Paramount’s had a particular stinker of a year – by throwing $150m down the toilet on a movie sporting tech they had to know no one was keen on and headlining a star with an extremely spotty record of late.
Their slate has few guarantees over the next year – one might want to bet on Top Gun: Maverick and Coming 2 America, but thirty-years-later sequels are never going to be sure things, while A Quite Place: Part II was definitely not asking for a follow up – and includes the already ridiculed Sonic the Hedgehog. Anyone willing to finance another Lee frame-rate experiment would have to have rocks in their head. Which leaves Smith relatively unscathed… At least, until Bad Boys for Life does or doesn’t garner an audience for Sony.