As a technical demonstration, Gemini Man is pretty cool. As a movie, not so much. Director Ang Lee is spotlighting two different high-tech capabilities with this action picture. One is de-aging CGI that allows Will Smith to play a thirty-years-younger version of himself, the other is 4K high frame rate 3D. They're really the selling points, and it's a shame they weren't applied to a far better screenplay.
Smith plays Henry Brogan, a highly-skilled government assassin who decides to retire. For reasons not worth going into here, his employers decide to eliminate him. They're unsuccessful, so the head of the covert Gemini program, Clay Verris (Clive Owen), steps in. Unbeknownst to Brogan, Verris cloned him decades ago, raising “Junior” as his own son and training him in the lethal arts. In other words, Brogan is so accomplished that the only person who can theoretically kill him is himself. Mary Elizabeth Winstead co-stars as Danny Zakarewski, an undercover agent who is initially supposed to surveil Brogan but ends up helping him.
As a story, Gemini Man is shockingly weak. Connections between the characters are lazily established, and the thin plot relies on shortcuts to get where it needs to go. This is most evident in the relationship between Brogan and Junior. The film has them interact in several scenes – tensely at first, then somewhat more sympathetically as they realize Verris has negatively impacted both their lives. The concept of a man facing a younger version of himself has potential, which is largely ignored here. It's mostly treated as an excuse to show Will Smith talking to himself. No real drama is mined from these moments.
Similarly, there's a scene or two where Junior confronts Verris about what he's done. The dialogue is flat, with both men saying fairly obvious things to one another. Little of it gets to the ostensible heart of the matter, i.e. that Junior has been lied to about his identity, and now he's being ordered to essentially kill himself. All kinds of psychological avenues are there to pursue. Gemini Man opts to stay on the surface, having Verris be evil and Junior be confused without ever truly probing how either of them feels.
Surprisingly, given he's made such superb films as The Ice Storm and Life of Pi, Ang Lee seems bored with his own story. The tech is what brings out his enthusiasm. The de-aging CGI intermittently looks unconvincing, while other times it's effective. If you can imagine the 2019 Will Smith squaring off against Fresh Prince of Bel Air Will Smith, that's what it's like. Even in the moments where Junior falls into the uncanny valley, it's clear this ability will open some doors for cinematic storytellers.
The high frame rate 3D is miraculous during the movie's three big action sequences. Shooting the picture at 120 frames per second (as opposed to the standard 24 fps) provides an image so detailed and so clear that it feels as though the action is happening for real, right in front of you. A shot of Brogan racing a motorcycle down a narrow alley gives you the sensation of being on the back of his bike. Another moment, featuring a villain blasting a machine gun into a store, might have you ducking to avoid the debris. Action sequences benefit from hfr 3D because they immerse you in the mayhem even more fully than regular 3D does.
Scenes where people are just talking – of which Gemini Man has (too) many – prove slightly distracting. You know the annoying “motion smoothing” effect most people turn off as soon as they buy an HDTV? It looks like that. Movies traditionally have a barrier between themselves and reality because there's a texture to the image. Subconsciously, viewers recognize they're looking at a reproduction of reality. High frame rate removes that barrier, making it seem like Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are performing live at the front of the theater. Turns out the barrier is kind of important. Without it, the vibe is akin to watching a play rather than a film.
This review has been as much about the format as the movie itself. Focusing on it is crucial because, at the end of the day, Lee appears to have made Gemini Man to show off what can be done. Fine and dandy, although hopefully the director will apply these things to a more developed, compelling story next time.
out of four
Gemini Man is rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.