Starring: Will Smith (Men in Black), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Clive Owen (Sin City), Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange)
Director: Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
Writers: David Benioff (Game of Thrones) and Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps)
Runtime: 1 hour 57 minutes
Release Date: 11th October (US, UK)
As unique and talented a filmmaker Ang Lee is, he can be very hit and miss with his projects. Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi stand amongst some of the most defining movies of this generation, yet in the same time frame he’s made critical and/or commercial flubs like Hulk, Taking Woodstock and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. With Gemini Man, Lee attempts his most mainstream film since that failed dalliance with Marvel’s green giant, and one would hope the filmmaker had learnt his lesson in crafting western action cinema since then. With veteran blockbuster craftsman Jerry Bruckheimer in the producer’s chair and Will Smith in the lead, Gemini Man has the potential to be at least a dumb fun high-spectacle romp in the vein of Bruckheimer’s output in the late 90s. Unfortunately, the final product is far less than the sum of its parts, and may well prove to be Lee’s biggest directing flub to date. Yes, worse than the time he made a movie where The Hulk fights Nick Nolte as a trauma bubble.
The script for Gemini Man has been floating around Hollywood for over twenty years, with concerns over the extensive de-aging visual effects required from its assassin vs. clone premise being the main stumbling block on its path to the big screen. When it comes to long-gestating projects, the result is rarely ever middling; you either end up with a masterpiece that has had time to think through every detail, or you get an overhyped mess that has larger problems than just those of practicality. The plot is a pretty standard spy-on-the-run action caper in the vein of The Bourne Identity, but the film’s pacing is far too weighty and the tone is often confused. Rather than clones, the film’s worst enemy is its dialogue, which over-explains obvious details through droning exposition and contains ostensibly witty banter delivered without any sense of comic timing; it is simply cringe-worthy at moments. The story lacks a good sense of momentum due to a baffling dearth of action sequences, with it all culminating in a frustratingly anti-climactic third act that ends just as it starts to get interesting. It all feels like Ang Lee understood the problem with Hulk is that it was too introspective and not thrilling enough, but here he has wholly removed the former yet without increasing the latter, and the result is arguably worse.
Will Smith is usually pretty reliable when playing magnetic, witty characters, but his track record at playing it dead straight is a little more inconsistent; for every Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, there’s a Seven Pounds and Collateral Beauty. Playing a dual role is an exercise every actor loves to challenge themselves to, and in Gemini Man Smith clearly tries but it never quite lands. As Henry Brogan, Smith manages to balance out his dramatic and charming sides relatively well, but his characterisation never really stretches beyond the expected tropes of the “aging badass who’s still got it but wants out” archetype. As his younger clone Junior, he brings a more stoic performance in-keeping with the character’s emotionally-bereft upbringing, but it too often veers into stilted; it reminded me of his acting in After Earth, and that is not a good thing. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong bring some chemistry and humour respectively to the proceedings as Smith’s allies Danny and Baron but they rarely get in on the action, with Smith often sheltering Winstead despite her character being a capable assassin in her own right. Faring worst of all is Clive Owen as big bad Clay Varris, who plays it so over-the-top he might as well be the villain from a GI Joe cartoon, and yet is thoroughly unthreatening; having Smith constantly tell us he’s relentless and evil doesn’t make it so.
As he did on Billy Lynn, much has been made of Lee’s decision to shoot the film at 120 frames per second (as opposed to the standard 24) and the bizarre distracting effect it has. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the film in this format so I cannot comment on this aspect, but regardless Gemini Man is a technically inconsistent film. After years of delay due to effects concerns, the final result of the de-aging process on Smith is genuinely impressive, but only in certain conditions. When movement and lighting is limited, the effect looks solid both as a recreation of 20-something Will Smith and as a believable human character. However, when in broad daylight or motion faster than a few steps, the flaws in the magic start to show, which is especially apparent in a scene towards the film’s end. The other visual effects are just as variable, with some looking seamless whilst others gave me shuddering flashbacks to the likes of Daredevil and Catwoman. Whether this is a result of the high frame rate or down to so much of the budget going to the de-aging process, but there are shots in Gemini Man that flat out do not look finished, and for a $138 million movie in 2019 it’s frankly embarrassing.
Gemini Man is the exact kind of overcooked mess you’d expect from a project that’s been in the kitchen for over twenty years. Whilst the performances are inconsistent and Lee still clearly hasn’t quite got a knack for directing Hollywood action, the tired and overwritten script is the clear culprit here. If this film had been made in the 1990s by a filmmaker within Bruckheimer’s usual stable, this could have been a disposable but fun action sci-fi romp in the vein of Face/Off, but as is it doesn’t work as either a throwback or a modern blockbuster. If you want to see a young Will Smith in an action/thriller, just go back and watch Enemy of the State or something and leave this one be.
FINAL VERDICT: 3/10