GEMINI MAN is your traditional “the greatest assassin anybody ever saw decides to retire and then god damn it I thought they loved me but they’re sending a guy to kill me what the fuck” type scenario. The gimmick is that the guy they send after him is a younger version of himself created through the miracle of cloning. He figures this out a good third or more into the movie, but we know from frame one because of the studio’s decision to advertise the film.
Will Smith (“Nightmare On My Street”) plays both extreme retiree Henry Brogan and the facial expressions of the very advanced digital animation character playing his clone. Junior, as he’s called, gets dispatched after Henry’s Old Buddy From the Marines Jack (Douglas Hodge, THE DESCENT PART 2) and Russian operative Yuri (Ilia Volok, AIR FORCE ONE) tell him that that last guy they had him kill, the terrorist, was actually an innocent scientist being eliminated as part of a cover-up. When Henry hears this information he looks up to the clouds just as the lite on a satellite blinks, but it’s only to tell us someone heard this. He doesn’t seem to figure it out himself.
He does catch on that the new manager at the docks where he keeps his boat is really a D.I.A. agent sent to keep tabs on him. He asks Dani (Mary Elizabeth Lucy McClane Winstead, BOBBY) on a date, maybe just to get her to admit she’s spying on him and convince her he’s not a threat. But when some dudes try to kill both of them they end up on the run together. They head to Colombia to meet up with his Old Agency Friend turned small plane pilot Baron (Benedict Wong, LARGO WINCH).
At this point I should mention this is an Ang Lee joint. He shoots some good, clear action scenes including a motorcycle chase and some fighting. There’s a little bit of super-speed parkour and some fights with alot of spinning that remind you he’s the guy who did CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, but they seem to be digital characters, so it looks more like the vampire ninjas in BLADE II. I would’ve preferred something more like the former, but the latter is better than you get in many mainstream action movies.
One of Lee’s strengths is that he’s great at that stuff but more invested in the emotions. There are signs of that here as Junior confronts his adoptive father/murder-trainer Clay Varris (Clive Owen, KILLER ELITE), who never got around to that special father-son “you’re a clone” talk. And Junior gets angry-weepy when Henry thwarts his attack and tries to convince him to switch sides. This would actually be a good time to use the ol’ “We’re not so different, me and you” line.
The script by Darren Lemke (SHREK FOREVER AFTER, GOOSEBUMPS, SHAZAM!) was originally sold in 1997. I guess somebody saw FACE/OFF. In the intervening decades it was rewritten by Billy Ray (COLOR OF NIGHT), Andrew Niccol (THE TRUMAN SHOW), David Benioff (25TH HOUR), Brian Helgeland (PAYBACK), Jonathan Hensleigh (DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE) and Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson (BIRTH OF THE DRAGON). Benioff, Ray and Lemke received credit. It has some semi-fun spy movie stuff in it – I like Henry’s Sherlock Holmes style deduction show-offery and his use of the abbreviation “AMF” (for “adios, motherfucker”). But it’s weirdly small for a hugely expensive movie. They seem convinced that (SPOILER, ARGUABLY) having a mysterious faceless super parkour dude take off his helmet to reveal he’s (gasp, choke, spit-take, faint) a third Will Smith is going to be surprising to someone, somewhere, and that there’s no need to go any further than that. I guess if they went for the obvious finale with a huge battle of Big Willies it would just be a more advanced THE ONE, but what they do instead is not a convincing argument for not going there.
Most disappointing coming from Lee, the technology is the only thing that seems distinct about the movie. Minus the expensive FX it’s easy to picture as a decent but generic DTV thriller or smaller January release. It would star a guy from a TV show I don’t watch, with Pierce Brosnan in Owen’s role.
Tony Scott was the original director attached back in the ‘90s. I guess he did ENEMY OF THE STATE instead. Pretty much every major action star, actor, or person who happened to walk by Hollywood was at one point cast in the lead roles. This includes Bruce, Sly, Arnold, Stath, Keanu, Denzel, Mel Gibson and Nic Cage. Plus Clint, De Niro, Pacino, Michael Douglas, Tommy Lee Jones, Sean Connery. Oh, and Matt and Ben and Brad. And Gerard Butler. And Nick Nolte! And Chris O’Donnell. And Jon Voight? And obviously Tom Cruise. I imagine they went to him again every time someone dropped out.
It is kind of a cool gimmick that Smith is able to play himself at Fresh Prince age, even having a fade, and I like that the opening credits are cartoony graffiti on an all white set and DJ Jazzy Jeff and Ready Rock C play scientists in one scene. Okay, I made up most of that. They don’t take full advantage of his history.
Apparently Lee said that the movie would only work with Smith or Cruise, but I’m convinced there were several better options. My top choice isn’t even on the list of actors previously attached: Jean-Claude Van Damme. Obviously all twin movies should be JCVD movies.
From what I’ve heard from the Big Willie Weekend Warriors interested in box office numbers this is a big flop. I wonder if a Van Damme version really would’ve lost more money, considering they’d have paid him way less? Either way we’d get an amazing fight between goofy boyish KICKBOXER era Van Damme and craggy character actor KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE era Van Damme. Also, I know Lee is Taiwanese/American, but I think it would be okay to add “worked with director of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON” to Van Damme’s Hong Kong action resume next to Corey Yuen, John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam.
On a meta-level, any of the ‘80s and ‘90s action stars would’ve added more meaning. Arnold and Sly are constantly at war with our memories of when their youthful bodies were central to their fame. They have a different appeal now that their age is showing, but are often made fun of as “geriatric” by an ageist society that sees action heroes as disposable. Or what about Clint, who is iconic both at Dirty Harry age and as a grandpa? Or what if it was somber, tired post-SIXTH SENSE Bruce Willis confronted by a 30 year old wiseacre Bruce?
Smith could maybe do a version of that – his movies (including this one) don’t do as well as they used to, and Junior could represent the arrogant BAD BOYS/INDEPENDENCE DAY smartass coming after the Smith who’s interested in sadder and riskier roles. But they don’t do that – Junior is dour and humorless. If you’re not gonna take advantage of the meta side of this premise, why not save a hundred million or so and just use a young actor wearing old age makeup?
The premise has other symbolic applications. Even us non movie stars worry about not being as good as we once were, or about being replaced by younger counterparts, or would like to tell our younger selves (or the next generation) how to avoid our mistakes. All of these ideas are present in the movie simply by being a natural extension of the concept. But I don’t think it would be accurate to say that the movie spends time exploring any of them.
So the only thing that’s really special about the movie is that Weta pushes the FX beyond anything we’ve seen before. To me the Junior character was almost always convincing, with the exception of an epilogue where he looks straight up POLAR EXPRESS. (I’m assuming that was a reshoot they had to rush the FX on – kinda funny if this has been in the works for 22 years and they still didn’t have time to finish.) Smith seems to have had fun playing Henry with a stand-in and then switching to a scuba suit and playing Junior. Also he gets to have a major cheat: according to IMDb, the Junior stunt double is KILTRO / MIRAGEMAN / MANDRILL / CHINANGO / UNDISPUTED 3 / REDEEMER / SAVAGE DOG star Marko Fucking Zaror. Smith is such a big movie star he gets to put his face on a legit action star. Not fair.
Unfortunately there’s another technological aspect that straight up ruined the movie for me. I knew it was shot in 3D, and I still love a good 3D movie, so I wanted to be sure to see it that way. Then I realized that you could only see it in 3D if you submitted to seeing it in high frame rate (HFR). If you don’t know what that is, it’s the rarely used technology that runs more than the traditional 24 frames per second for a smoother, cleaner look. Lee designed GEMINI MAN for 4k 120 fps, a format only available in a couple of theaters. That are in China. Here there were some places that had 2k 120 fps, but I saw it at 60 frames.
I saw the first HOBBIT in whatever form of this they had then, and I still can’t figure out what in shit’s name Peter Jackson could have possibly been thinking. It made everything look like absolute shit – the sets, the makeup, the lighting. Like somebody shot it in their backyard with a video camera. If you’ve seen motion smoothing before, that’s a simulation of this look. But some people think it works well in GEMINI MAN, and I decided to listen to them. I don’t blame them – I’m a grown man, and can make my own decisions. But I better not fall for this shit again.
I have always praised Lee for pushing forward so unpredictably. I once said that he could make anything work, including RACCOON HAMLET. And now he has set his sights on making high frame rate work. From what I have read, it sounds like he’s not delusional enough to believe that it looks good. But he thinks it’s his duty to future generations of filmmakers to experiment with it, take the bullets, make the mistakes. Mistakes such as: shooting a feature film in high frame rate. Projecting a feature film in high frame rate. etc.
I noticed two advantages. The main one is that pans looks smoother. Digital projection has always had a problem that when the camera moves sideways it flickers the way film projection did only when the shutter was misaligned. This can be especially annoying in 3D. On a technical level, the 3D of GEMINI MAN looks very good. And I have no doubt that Lee put thought into those compositions. However, there are maybe two shots where he tries to do a cool 3D thing. And you cannot tell me that making a movie look like this is a worthy sacrifice for smooth 3D if you’re then gonna try to make the 3D subtle. With this look you damn well better having two or three Will Smiths jumping in and out of the screen every 30 seconds. It better be COMIN’ AT YA!: FULL THROTTLE.
And also there are some scenes in the dark, like at night or in shadowy catacombs, that I think managed to be visible and dark (and 3D!) at the same time. Not necessarily in a way that looks like real life, but in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen in, you know, real movies. So that was a rare moment where I guess I could understand a cinematographer thinking there might be potential here.
Okay, it’s true. I’m brainwashed by over a hundred years of cinema to believe that movies need to look the way they always have. 24 frames was arbitrary, a construct. Theoretically over time we could train our brains to not want the beauty of film grain and motion blur and texture in our movies. Instead of reminding us of soap operas, live broadcasts and behind the scenes featurettes, this look could be what we consider cinematic, and future generations could scoff at the ugly garbage that to us is “the entire history of cinema.” A fine, fine goal for Jackson and Lee, I guess. Also, I hope they switch it to round screens. There’s no reason why movies have to be dumb rectangles.
Maybe we’d get used to it. Or maybe it ain’t broke and this ain’t fixing it. For now it puts a magnifying glass on the artifice. It makes almost every aspect of filmmaking seem phony. The acting seems less convincing, the stunts seem like stunts, the sound effects and especially the music don’t connect. Every time the score flared up it seemed like somebody playing a boombox over real life to try to make it exciting. They put millions and millions of dollars into making Junior seem real and at the same time they broke the illusion of every basic aspect of cinematic storytelling. What the fuck.
This could be great for a 3D nature or concert documentary. Or a JACKASS movie. But seeing the regular trailer again post-movie I knew that was how I should’ve seen it.
I’m sure Ang Lee will keep doing this, as is his right as a citizen of the world. Hopefully he’ll get comfortable enough with it that when I watch them in normal, good-looking movie format they seem like good ol’ Ang Lee movies.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.