Ang Lee’s Gemini Man is available in a number of format variants: 2 or 3D, High Frame Rate (120fps) or standard 24fps, 4K or 2K. Note the review here is based on a 2D, 24fps, 4K screening.
Gemini Man tells the story of Henry Brogan (Will Smith), a government assassin who is choosing to retire after noticing his (still exceptional) talents are starting to slip, whilst his conscience is becoming ever more troubled. With his last kill being not quite as he was led to believe, the agency decides to kill Henry – and all associated with his work – as now he represents a loose end. Led by the man who trained Henry, Clay Varris (Clive Owen), the Gemini project – a black ops unit – takes control of the assassination, after Brogan’s agency fails to execute a plan to kill him at his home.
Teaming up with Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an agent initially undercover tracking Henry, and Baron (Benedict Wong), a former colleague of both Henry and Clay, Henry escapes the country. When Gemini eventually catches up to him, he learns that the would-be assassin is a clone (Junior – a digital-double of Smith, age- adjusted to c. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air era) made from his blood, around 25 years earlier. First, Henry will need to avoid being murdered, then he will need to find a way to get through to Junior, so that together they can return to the US to stop Varris, and to shutdown Gemini.
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The Robert Browning quote “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” sprung to mind when watching this film. We are so used to cinema consistently proving itself able to present anything we can imagine, that it’s been jarring for a number of years now to experience the rare occasions technology falls short. Let’s be clear: the digital double of Will Smith looks consistently terrible in motion. Given how The Hobbit trilogy had its effects exposed by 48 frames per second (all of which looked far more acceptable at the standard rate), it was a relief that the higher rate wasn’t chosen for this viewing. When the double is completely still, it looks fine: it’s when it has to emote – the eyes are dead, the blinks are too slow. This doesn’t work – and it will be a film-breaking problem for those who agree with that assessment. Why Lee didn’t go with the de-ageing methods preferred by Marvel, for example, we may never know, but at least there the image begins as a flesh and blood human – a starting point that is harder to push towards the uncanny valley.
In action, however, there isn’t the same worry about facial detail. Here the film’s biggest successes are found. The first big showdown between Henry and Junior features some of the graceful movement we’d expect from the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In pacing, and commitment to very long, single camera takes, it evokes that scene in 2017’s Atomic Blonde. In the film’s look, colours are deep and rich, and all times of day represented attractively. Once again we find few filmmakers make as beautiful a product as that created by Ang Lee.
Sadly, the story is generic and heavily signposted at all stages. We’ve seen elements of this tale in Rian Johnson’s Looper: the built-in obsolescence of a hitman’s life, once he retires, and the idea that the best person to end that life is someone with that person’s life and experience – these were dealt with better there. As for any exploration of the nature of the clone – is he, effectively, Henry, or is he something else? The correct answer is, of course, something else, as Junior is as similar to Henry as a twin would be (albeit younger) – and no one ever argues twins are the same person. The film doesn’t really lean into any of this though. Junior is raised by the same man who trained Henry. Released into the field, he moves and acts like Henry, ergo he’s the same person. Case closed.
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Some interesting little touches are hinted at around the Junior character. A certainly simplicity to food choices is not heavily accented, but certainly there as a hint towards his underdeveloped, childlike nature. Otherwise his relationship with Varris is coldly manipulative, wrapped in the veneer of warmth. This would be interesting, in itself, were Clive Owen not playing the role so transparently as a bastard. Even down to the initiative being called Gemini, this film lacks for any nuance; something it desperately needed in dealing with such potentially complex themes. If Varris’ motivations are clear, then his strategy really isn’t. All the way through, Junior is his greatest achievement… until he isn’t. This leaves the audience wondering why the later reveal isn’t playing a more major role from the start.
On the other side of the story, Will Smith (the full, 50-something years old, undigitised version) is great, playing the sweet spot between charming and world weary. He’s got very little chemistry with Winstead however, who is, herself, a little wasted in her role, becoming a relative passenger fairly early on. Perhaps the need to keep her safe is seen as character motivation, but it would have been simpler to team him just with Wong, and leave it at that.
So, with storytelling somewhat rote, character work mixed, performances – Owen aside – perfectly fine (but far from transcendent), Gemini Man succeeds or fails on its technical achievements. Despite well realised action, these achievements fail to match some of the de-ageing work we’ve seen elsewhere in big budget cinema. Though it must be noted that Junior does always look present in the frame. When the two Smiths fight, it is convincing that it’s two human males fighting. As the technical standards here will be surpassed (and quickly, at that), Gemini Man will be left looking something of a curiosity, and one that did little more than pay lip service to themes better explored elsewhere in cinema.