Filmmaker Ang Lee’s freefall into fancy-technology fart-arounds continues with Gemini Man — a sci-fi / action film with a script almost as old as the bankability of its lead actor, Will Smith.
After winning his second Best Director Oscar — for Life of Pi, still the most enduring example of 3D’s potential to augment artistry — Lee seems fixated on exploring the wildest frontiers of visual presentation and, here, the uncanny valley. His work is frustratingly fruitless because, as was the case with his 2016 dud Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, there is literally no theater in North America in which to see Gemini Man as Lee intends: in 3D at 4K resolution, with an extra-high frame rate of 120 frames per second. (Chicago has two of the 14 American locations presenting in 3D at 120 fps, but it’s not in 4K. And while many theaters will present in 3D, including most local markets, Gemini Man will be shown at 60 fps.)
Imagine the motion smoothing effect on your 4K TV pushed to Spinal Tap extremes as the intended effect. At least in Lynn, that aesthetic approached Lee’s thematic purpose of how the contemporary televisual clarity of war has desensitized us to its more mercenary repercussions. Here, it’s meant to make everything look plasticine, not just the dicey visual effects deployed to tell the story of Henry Brogan (Smith), a retiring assassin confronted by the only rival strong enough to stop him — a younger, cloned version of himself with fewer decades of decaying reflexes and deadening ennui.
Perhaps to cinephiles with passports, Gemini Man will look more human than human. For those of us hoping our theater’s high-mileage bulbs won’t blow, Gemini Man feels zombified from its initial images. Lee clearly means for you to lose yourself in the enveloping depths of a Belgian train station, on whose entwined-DNA structure the film opens with a long static shot. In plain-jane 2D, it sits there in a manner that makes you wonder if the camera crew fell asleep.
On the other hand, maybe the last thing Gemini Man needs is further augmentation of the soap-opera effect. Consider the following three lines strung together as Henry contemplates the toll of 72 kills: “That shit starts to mess with you a bit. It’s like my soul is hurt. I just want some peace.” Look out, everybody! The Clichématron is unplugged and still spitting out lines.
See, Henry has just put a bullet in the neck of a target aboard a train moving at nearly 150 miles per hour. But he’s mad because it should’ve been a headshot. Seems like a tough standard to hold yourself to, but Henry decides that’s reason enough to retire. After all, he has AMF’d enough people on behalf of the DIA. That’s not the CIA because — again, just like Spinal Tap — Gemini Man goes up a letter. Speaking of letters, you’ll eventually get the profane explanation for AMF but only after hearing the acronym a half-dozen times.
Naturally, there are people pursuing more permanent retirement for Henry. People like Clay Varris, whom Clive Owen plays with a thousand-yard stare fixated on whatever he bought with this movie’s money. Clay created Gemini, a privatized paramilitary organization, and he also has a phenomenal closet full of low-top sneakers (shown in one scene and never again mentioned). He got mad when Henry turned down his job offer after their time together in the Marines and, unbeknownst to Henry, gathered enough DNA to clone him. In the science of Gemini Man, cloning is waved off as “complicated but doable.” It’s less Face/Off, more Face/Plant.
“Why would they clone me?” Henry asks. “Why wouldn’t they clone Nelson Mandela?” Well, Henry is told, “Nelson Mandela couldn’t kill a man on a moving train from a mile away.” OK, good work. We got the Clichématron under control. Cornball as it seems, that line hints at the more thoughtful movie you’d hope would entice Lee — about a world in which we’d absolutely clone the expendable to eliminate the exceptional. Or, once Henry sees Junior, a rumination on how a new generation’s physical resemblance resurrects resentment for those who received our love and betrayed us in return.
Instead, Gemini Man concerns itself more with Clay’s profoundly stupid plan to kill Henry — whom he suspects may know about Junior — by dispatching Junior, whom Clay has raised as his own son. “He is the darkness you must walk through,” Clay tells Junior. Oh, crap, guys. The Clichématron is back on. And now it has legs. DEAR GOD, WHO GAVE IT LEGS?
The selling point, of course, is what happens when Fresh Prince-era Will Smith punches Collateral Beauty-era Will Smith. Their clash encompasses overlit, undercooked Michael Bleh action sequences, including a motorcycle chase in Colombia and a confrontation in Hungarian catacombs that follows a perilously overlong second act of bland Budapest show-and-tell.
Rendered entirely through digital means, Junior represents a peculiarly unconvincing act of digital ventriloquism. Junior’s rubbery physicality laughably resembles CGI’s limitations from Smith’s earliest stardom. His facial expressions range from consternation to constipation. In a real head-scratcher, twentysomething Junior sounds like 51-year-old Henry. The new hotness feels more like old busted here.
Smith has made so many terrible movies over the last decade that Gemini Man feels like something heaved atop the pyre while the remains of Seven Pounds and After Earth glow in ember at the bottom. Unlike those films, he’s at least trying. The first act finds Smith emitting an easygoing elder-statesman vibe a la Denzel Washington, and he lets the discovery of Junior whittle some of his faculties down to nubs for which the film has little use.
Gemini Man has even less use for Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a DIA hotshot named Danielle Zakarewski, which sounds like the winner of a Paramount Pictures Name-a-Character contest. In one scene, Danielle trains a light on Henry and Junior exclusively to illuminate their hand-to-hand combat. The moment where she refuels with some caviar on expired crackers is at least an apt metaphor for the elegance spread across something so stale, brittle and bland.
“It’s not every day you see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents by himself,” one of Henry’s other cohorts quips. All right. At least someone managed to rip the Clichématron’s legs off. For all the road rash or combat contusions suffered by characters in Gemini Man, the most punishing wounds are those Lee has self-inflicted; have there been two worse consecutive films from someone after winning an Oscar for Best Director?
It’s best to consider the upside: After his last movie this bad (Hulk), Lee rebounded with Brokeback Mountain. Maybe instead of following frame-rate folly to his grave, Lee can clone that. Complicated? Maybe. But doable.