Two Will Smiths do not make a right in ‘Gemini Man’

For all its technical wizardry and for every commercial that claims “you’ve never seen anything like it” — “Gemini Man” is a movie you’ve seen before.

An obvious reason for that is script, which sat rotting in development hell for 20 years — literally. First conceived by the acclaimed screenwriter of “Shrek Forever After,” Darren Lemke, in 1997, “Gemini Man” is now credited to three writers and is said to have passed through the hands of countless others along the way. The result is a film so aggressively generic that its plot plays like bad deja vu. “Gemini Man” may be directed by Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Life of Pi”), but its insides are entirely Jerry Bruckheimer. Had it been made, as intended, in the 90s, maybe we would look back and smile. But 20 years later in 2019, “Gemini Man” doesn’t quite hit the mark.

To be fair, the selling point of “Gemini Man” isn’t so much its story but how Lee, cinematographer Dion Beebe and the talented folks at Weta Digital decided to tell it. The film is shot at 120 frames per second (fps), five times the average Hollywood frame rate, it can be viewed in 3D and it utilizes elaborate de-aging technology, allowing Will Smith to play both a 50-year-old hit man as well as his 20-year-old clone. If such technological achievements are what a film should be rated on, then “Gemini Man” is mostly a success. With the exception of the film’s final moments, the young Smith created in a computer looks no less lifelike than the real deal. In fact, many of the movie’s most dramatic moments rest entirely on his doppelganger’s shoulders. Smith’s performance here is not only a reminder of his oft-forgotten acting capabilities, but a testament to the de-aging software itself.

Yet of equal importance to the technology’s success is the high frame rate at which Lee and Beebe filmed (the director experimented with something similar on “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” with cinematographer John Toll, in 2016.) The gimmick, despite the nonsense of the story it accompanies, is pleasantly surprising. The increased speed takes some adjusting to, but after the first few scenes it begins to feel natural. Action sequences in 120fps are especially kinetic; the hyperrealism and ultra-clarity make every blow more painful, and Lee’s long takes help to immerse you so completely in the action that you truly feel like you’re there — cliches be damned. This high frame rate also helps blend the delicate nature of de-aging. Because the movie already looks like a video game, a young Smith blends in smoothly, and the “uncanny valley” to which he could have belonged is neatly avoided.

If only the technology was in service of a good story. Yes, de-aging, 3D and 120fps are appropriate for a film like “Gemini Man,” but the screenplay they’re working with is abysmal. For one thing, time has not been kind to its genre. Since 1997, plenty of thrillers about shady government agencies betraying their own people and superhero movies about scientifically engineered super-soldiers have graced the silver screens; in combining these tropes, “Gemini Man” only doubles down on its datedness.

The characterization of the film’s major players don’t do it any favors, either. Every role is reduced to a three-word SparkNotes summary — that is, if they’re given a personality to begin with. For example, at one point (and for no particular reason), Smith makes reference to his deadly bee allergy. “I wonder if this randomly specific detail is trying to foreshadow something?” you deadpan, cringing in your recliner at dialogue too awkward to be an accident. In another scene, Smith and an old pal discuss whether they should drink a cool can of Coca-Cola™ or an ice cold draft of Anheuser-Busch™. Their logos are crisply captured in 4K HD. Who allowed this to happen?

But, alas, every time watched, the movie runs its length. It isn’t until the second half that we meet the killer clone; as a result, the whole film feels not only lopsided but also poorly paced. Smith’s quasi-love interest (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) decides to show up, alongside his nemesis (Clive Owen) and his wisecracking best friend (Benedict Wong) in performances of epically abhorrent proportions. And when the Fresh Prince finally shows, the movie not only attempts to treat it like a twist, but also completely glosses over the psychological ramifications of such a discovery.

Instead, it moves on. At least that means it ends sooner. 4/10

This review was originally published on October 15, 2019 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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