Will Smith is a huge movie star in part because of his infectious charisma. He’s a great actor, too, but it was his charm and personality that aided him in becoming one of the biggest stars on the planet. Gemini Man, the latest film from Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, has not one but two Wills and neither has any of that presence. Instead of double the Wills making the movie double the fun, it’s almost like they cancel each other out, resulting in a complete zero.
In Gemini Man, Smith stars as Henry Brogan, the world’s deadliest assassin. After one last kill, 51-year-old Henry is ready to call it quits. Turns out, though, Henry was set up and now his own government wants to kill him. When they fail, Clive Owen’s character—who runs a private military company called Gemini—sends the one person capable of killing Henry out to do that: himself. Or, more specifically, a 21-year-old clone named Junior.
There’s no doubt the basic idea and potential of Gemini Man is fascinating. What would it be like to not only meet your younger self but go up against them? And yet, Gemini Man almost completely glosses over that. Junior isn’t introduced for almost 30 minutes. Their main conflict gets squashed fairly quickly and the interactions are largely unenlightening.
In place of an interesting story driven by its core premise, Gemini Man is actually a familiar, underwhelming, globe-trotting espionage thriller, as Henry tries to get to the bottom of the conspiracy with Junior hot on his trail. That plot involves a spy named Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Henry’s old friend Baron (Benedict Wong), his handler Del (Phantom Menace’s Ric Olie himself, Ralph Brown) and many more, none of whom exhibit a noticeable change over the course of the film. (Winstead and Wong, at least, look like they’re having fun, unlike everyone else, Smith included.)
And yet, after two hours of exposition, set pieces, twists, and turns, I literally could not tell you why everyone wants Henry dead. Seriously. I’m sure it’s in there. I got bits and pieces of it. But the story is so needlessly stuffed, convoluted, and monotonous, I wasn’t able to fully decipher the main plot point of the movie. Not a great start and hopefully, you’ll fare better.
Maybe the action is at least good, right? Ang Lee—the owner of two Best Director Oscars—is one of the greatest filmmakers living today. So yes, it’s mostly refreshing and entertaining—kinetic moments of conflict not just set in exotic locales, but framed with consistently inventive, jaw-dropping shots. There are fisheye lenses that delightfully distort what’s going on, visceral POVs that make the audience feel like they’re in a video game, and dynamic camera moves that suck us into the adventure. Unfortunately, because the narrative is so jumbled and characters so flat, the stakes for these sequences are sorely lacking, which makes enjoyment of them fleeting at best.
Then there’s the technology utilized for the movie. Lee filmed Gemini Man in 3D at 120 frames per second, which is almost five times the speed that a normal movie is captured/projected at. That means there’s no blur to the motion. It’s as crystal clear and realistic as filmmaking gets. However, it’s such an advanced system, most theaters won’t even be able to show it the way he intended, making some of this a moot point. I did get to see the movie the way it was intended, and at times it’s gorgeous. The level of clarity and detail on the screen is mind-blowing and Lee uses it to great effect showing us things in ways we’ve rarely seen before, such as stunning shots through a sniper rifle and amazing slow-motion explosions and fire. You get the sense, though, that shooting the film with those technical aspects at the forefront may have pushed the story and characters lower on the priority list. And while Lee is not a filmmaker to ignore those things, there’s no doubt here they take a back seat in service of a presentation most people won’t get to see.
One character that certainly doesn’t take a back seat is Junior, the landmark digital recreation of Smith as his 23-year-old self. It’s one of the first times a fully-recreated digital human being has played a starring role in a major movie and the results are all over the map. Some of the shots are beyond words beautiful, as if Smith’s character from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had been time-warped into the movie. But in other scenes, specifically at the end of the movie (but in other places too), the effect is off, making the digital creation stand out in ways he certainly wasn’t intended to. Flaws are to be expected with such an ambitious visual effect—but again, it makes you wonder if story and character were usurped for technology.
And yet, all of these flaws might have been okay if Gemini Man was simply fun—if it just had a bit of added flair or excitement conveyed through editing, music, visuals, and sound. Something to at least mimic general action film-type entertainment even if the movie overall has its problems. Well, there are exactly two scenes like that in the entirety of Gemini Man: the finale of a dirt bike set-piece and the end of the final battle. As for the rest, it feels like a wet blanket. The pace is slow and monotonous, exposition is given by long, unimaginative sequences of dialogue, and attempts at humor are few and far between. All the elements of what should be an enjoyable sci-fi romp are there, but everything feels like it’s being suffocated. Which brings us back to the crux of the project: Will Smith himself.
Smith’s Henry is a very complex character. He’s a stone-cold killer and former soldier wrestling with the misdeeds of his past. Despite that, he’s meant to be seen as a nice, moral person who has some serious demons and doesn’t particularly like himself because of that. He even says multiple times that he can’t stand to look at himself in the mirror. However, Gemini Man rarely delves deeper. We never learn about those demons, and we hear about his fears but often don’t see them play out. Because it’s all talk and no show, Henry comes off as a paper-thin version of a novel-worthy character.
Smith’s performance, unfortunately, follows suit. Without specifics to hone in on, the actor’s take on Henry doesn’t create a particularly engaging hero. And neither of his two roles showcase even a dash of his signature charisma. Which, ultimately, is the biggest problem with Gemini Man in the end. We’re told Henry and Junior are interesting characters, and that we should enjoy seeing them on screen together, but they aren’t and we don’t. Almost nothing about them is explored in any meaningful way. Then you double that disappointment and the result puts a chokehold on the entire movie.
That’s Gemini Man in a nutshell. It’s one of the most high-tech movies in history, featuring one of the best actors of our time, directed by one of the best filmmakers ever, all of which is garbled up and spit out as something beneath everything and everyone involved. It’s an unfortunate, lifeless waste.
Gemini Man opens October 11.
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