21 years ago, then-hotshot producer Jerry Bruckheimer, while still working under the wings of one archaic mouse, released perhaps his most iconic, and highest-grossing piece of work. The space epic Armageddon seemed to have change the preeminent story by which summer popcorn blockbusters will live and die. Perhaps in an alternate universe, his most recent film out this weekend would’ve followed maybe a year or two later and most of us would’ve been cool with Will Smith fighting a younger version of himself. Or preferably the reverse.
Right off the bat, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man will suddenly feel extremely out of place as a film in 2019. That is, once you push aside the whole technological gimmickry being pushed down our throats. The reality is obvious, so few theaters on the planet will be equipped to present his work as intended: a 120fps 3D and 4K combo meal. What most audiences will see is an appetizer for what could still be years away, and yet couldn’t be further pushed into the past if one had the strength of Zeus. It’s a serious anomaly that tries to invoke some great fun and bleakly existential morals. Rest of the time, it could just be a bad blip in our common cinematic lineage.
Smith plays Henry Brogan, a sharp-shooter assassin with 72 confirmed kills, getting on in years despite persistent denial. At 52, his skills remain ever watchful. But he’s nonetheless eager to slow down and retire. Just as his wishes are granted (wink wink), eager to enjoy a life of meager fishing off the Georgia coast, he’s pulled back in constantly. Loose ends rear their ugly head, prompting his former superior (Clive Owen) to begin a complicated chain of events involving advance bioengineering, and the computer-created visage of a Fresh Prince-era Will trained to fight, and perhaps kill.
Two of his closest co-ops are murdered, leaving Henry to fend for himself. Save for outside assistance from pilot pal Baron (Benedict Wong), and Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a reluctant agent whose cover’s blown with naught but a word. The trio will roam around, or more accurately tread/crawl through a series of scenarios that less-than-accurately represent a reputable action movie. Not many of them are considerably spectacular, despite Ang’s penchant for interjecting human weakness and a minor shred of existential mid-life crises with showcases of well-choreographed and edited action sequences.
There’s no way he doesn’t extend those traits expertly. He does but can only go as far as his third-party script will allow. That’s not anything new, if much of his recent American-made filmography outside Life of Pi is enough of an indicator. His previous film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, I had somehow avoided during its brief run in theaters. Probably for the best, knowing how the high-tech aspect simply couldn’t have been at all appreciated. The bizarrely combined writing trio of David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Darren Lemke (Shazam) and Billy Ray (Overlord) are just that.
An odd mix of talent trying to merge straightforward violence, an excess of 90s one-liners, real-world drama, and not-at-all subtle product placement. Ang does add his own personal touches to spice up the otherwise apparent genericism in play, doing his best to still make it enjoyably awesome. The reality is apparent, however. Anyone else could’ve directed this piece of stock filmmaking, the type Bruckheimer was always known for, and achieve a similar effect across the board. A pure shame for Ang, with the hope this won’t sour his reputation.
All of this despite working with a producer only versed in limited forms of film during a 40+-year career, and a thrilling script that can’t maintain much of a consistent tone. Regardless, Ang soldiers through, utilizing the likes of his regular editor Tim Squyres (Unbroken), DoP Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns), and prod designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception) to nail down the film’s proven action aesthetic. Much of which still looks reputable as we hop from location to location; why don’t more action flicks take the time to shoot in beautiful Hungary? The more realistic elements, the better. Let’s be real, any level of CG involved just won’t remain at all tethered. All of which building to one of the film’s major selling points: current Will Smith fighting his former self.
The 51-year-old actor must indeed battle a 23-year-old variant of his former self, digitally de-aged in a method like Scorsese’s approach with his four leads in his upcoming The Irishman. Yes, it’s fun enough to see Will tackle a dual role, and he does allow for a few clever moments of aged chuckles. But it’s no less disturbing, a tad ugly; perhaps it’s easier to call it an affront against nature. It just is, in the worst way. 90s Will, although pleasing for nostalgia purposes, just cannot be replicated well inside the computer.
While this technology can perhaps be used for good, it carries the foreboding stench of a Twilight Zone plot. If not controlled, it can ride off the rails and easily ruin cinema as we know it. But that’s only a momentary, fearful guess; more than likely, it will not happen. Thank goodness for actors like Owen, Wong, and Winstead who can prove the art form isn’t dead and deliver some enjoyable performances. Owen being the stereotypically snidely villain, Wong the comic relief with surprising singing chops, and Winstead the honest voice of reason keeping everyone else focused.
It is easy to forget Gemini Man had originated as a TV series in the 70s. Attempts to make it into a future go as far back as the late 90s. And its rather expensive road to the screen increasingly arduous. But now that it’s reached screens, audiences will likely experience a middling confusion. Most clearly cheated out of what Ang had hoped for, the moment he signed on to this oddball actioner. Most will come very close to achieving his vision with the film, but that just won’t matter much. Its overreliance on being weirdly funny, somewhat weak on its own morals, and yet generically breezy and cool with the physical movement all amounts to a cringey mixed bag. There’s much I know I enjoyed once I could look past the gimmickry, and just as much that will potentially haunt my nightmares for worse. Anyone going in looking for the next John Wick or I, Robot will be sorely disappointed.
Here, you’re just getting a high-carb popcorn film that’s not running on much, except for an inflated shred of pluck and attitude. It worked decently enough for me; most others may not be so lucky. Here’s hoping Mr. Lee’s legacy won’t be disastrously tarnished in the end, and that we all can achieve retirement on our own terms. Wishful thinking, and yet this Gemini Man will leave us hoping for that… and much, much more. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up)
Gemini Man opens in area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language; 117 minutes.