“Gemini Man” is a baffling product born from a bizarre idea. The story was conceived in 1997 (Tony Scott was billed to direct) and was tossed between directors and re-assigned lead actors (including Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood) until it landed with Skydance Media in 2016 and Ang Lee signed on to direct in 2017. For Lee, it seems to make sense – the film welds concerns that have colored a number of his projects: the debate of Nature v Nurture; the alienation of a fraying man; the challenge of what digital filmmaking can do. On paper, “Gemini Man” tends to all three concerns, but in practice the film is impenetrable beyond its technological clout.
Smith plays Henry Brogan, a 51-year-old revered government assassin who wants to retire. “Gemini Man” opens with one of Henry’s recent jobs, showing through a viewfinder just how sharp his shot is. As soon as Henry tries to opt out of trouble, trouble comes hunting him around the corner. And with the excruciating detail that the film’s 120-frames-per-second technology prescribes, it’s impossible to ignore just how alarming this new threat is. Henry tells people he’s been avoiding mirrors lately – so naturally, it’s in one that he sees the reflection of his hitman. The film earns its title and central conflict by, 45 minutes in, showing the audience that Henry’s hunter looks just like him.
Lee previously used the high frame rate in 2016 with “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the first feature to showcase the technology. The ambitious decision didn’t quite convince at the time, with that film being scorned for losing in emotional depth what it gained in visual detail. How did he recover? By diving headfirst into an explosive action movie in which Will Smith fights Will Smith – and using the very same technology, amped-up and still the main event.
From the very beginning of “Gemini Man,” Lee’s passion for visual minutiae is impressive to the point of distraction. Being able to count the individual hairs on Will Smith’s arm, noticing the dancing specks of light from a fire, following the specific trajectory of a fly before it’s swatted – these are integral parts of the film’s agenda, just as the panoramic beauty of an orange sunset over Buttermilk Sound feels fitting for the man who won four Oscars for the marvelous visual tapestries of “Life of Pi”. But once Lee establishes what he can do with technology in “Gemini Man” – and it’s a lot – it becomes difficult to refocus emotion onto anything more human. By multiplying life, “Gemini Man” too often merely dilutes it.
In the first brawl between Smith and Smith 2.0 (dubbed Junior), the breadth of Lee’s skill is put to the test with astonishing results. It comes before any kind of stilted confrontation with words, exemplifying just how immersive video game-type visuals can be when done well. The camera keeps motion aligned to action, rather than atmosphere, and in the dizzy POV shots atop both Henry and Junior’s motorcycles, it’s breathtaking fun.
But it’s the script that fails the concept. Once the initial shock of the twist has worn off, revelatory conversations are paced with a total lack of tension, acting as wooden narrative roadblocks rather than crucial words between actual living, thinking human beings. Everything is in service of the aesthetic – in the same way that Junior struggles to become his full self, a clone with a soul, “Gemini Man” fails to ever fully become a whole movie, surviving instead as a successful science experiment of great tech and poor heart.
It doesn’t help that every cast member feels disconnected from the next. Brogan’s friendships are generic and disposable – he mourns a co-worker only briefly, and seeks advice from a stereotypically wealthy, married man who owns a boat and nods to a bikini-clad girl on it. Benedict Wong crops up and becomes a centerpiece for entertaining action-figure violence (and also smokes a cigar while watching a soccer game in one shot, presumably serving no other purpose than to show how good smoke looks when shot at 120 frames per second). Mary Elizabeth Winstead holds her ground as a slightly more fleshed-out female counterpart than the bro-heavy genre has offered in the past, but when you’re anyone, acting opposite Will Smith and a digital (not de-aged) motion-capture version of Will Smith…well, it could never really be focused on anyone else.
“Gemini Man” offers a tremendous exercise for the actor: Smith is not the first to play side-by-side versions of himself, as this movie becomes a sort of roughened-up dystopian riff on “The Parent Trap” (albeit with less matchmaking), but the cross-generational dynamic between both of Smith’s characters increases the performer’s empathetic strength. It’s a shame, then, that such a promising psychological angle is at war, as ever, with the tech.
This is certainly a step forward from “Billy Lynn”, and a major achievement in terms of Lee’s ongoing campaign for the medium’s progress. But the movie is a feature-length version of what happens when you look at any one thing for too long: The object – or in this case, Will Smith’s face – eventually stops making sense; the sheen wears off, and the armor rings hollow.
Paramount releases “Gemini Man” theatrically on October 11, 2019.