2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong, Clive Owen | directed by Ang Lee | 1 hr 57 mins
Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is an ace sniper who who travels the world on secret clandestine, government missions. He’s so good he can pick off a guy on a moving train from 160 yards or something like that. He’s “the beset”. Now he’s ready to retire, but suspects that the college student at the fishing dock, Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is actually a tail keeping an eye on him. Soon they both get burned and race across the world from Columbia to Budapest to find out who is behind it and uncover the truth of the Gemini Project. The unstoppable agent after him: a doppelganger of his younger self. Will Smith fights the Fresh Prince. That’s the delicious high concept hook behind Gemini Man.
Cooked up in a lab at J.J. Abrams’ Skydance studios, Gemini Man is the result of several screenplays (one by Game of Thrones’ unclothed emperor David Benioff) that feel like they were at one time a fun one-liner driven 90s throwback Will Smith action movie. Then they hired Ang Lee, because Skydance hires talent and says “work your magic”. That one-liner driven action movie is not the one Lee wants to make. The result is one of the weirdest, most tonally off-kilter studio movie I’ve seen in a good long while. There isn’t one singular thing that sinks Gemini Man, it’s an oddity sunk by a thousand tiny cuts.
Ang Lee seems to look at Gemini Man as a chance to make an anti-war movie about the ghosts that haunt a veteran after action and prevented him from opening up to women and raising a family. Lee sees the idea that Brogan would meet a younger clone of himself as thematic text of this story and a chance to find redemption by not make the same mistakes again. The script thinks it would be cool to have Brogan’s clone do cartoonish flips off of buildings and have bike-fu fights.
There are a handful of fights and shootouts in the film, but the best is a lengthy sequence in Columbia where Smith first meets his clone and they duke it out in a shootout that turns into a lengthy motorcycle chase. These sequences are few and far between. The film chugs along at 2 full hours, taking a while to get to the action scenes and even longer to break open the clone story. That’s not my problem with Gemini Man, it’s going to be a lot of peoples, but I think it’s measured pace is one of it’s strongest qualities. The movie takes it’s time to set up Brogan’s current state before flipping it over, then it takes it’s time exploring the clone story before unleashing the bullets. The film goes exactly where you’d expect, the final act feels rushed (Clive Owen as the Big Bad not registering at all as a threat), but the movie has set itself up so well that – if it wasn’t constantly undermining itself – that might have really worked.
Lee stages his action scenes expertly and the use of steady cam long takes is beautiful. The whole movie is beautiful actually. Lee shoots everything against bright vibrant locals, clearly specifically chosen for the color palette they give the film. In one scene, Brogen, Danny and Brogen’s “guy who can get everything” Baron (Benedict Wong, miscast) sit on a hotel balcony talking, but this simple dialog scene is burned into the memory with Lee’s color pallet: the blue of the pool and the yellows and reds of the hotel behind them. The special effects are another matter. Watching young Smith, Junior, leap off the walls and speed along roofs in his solid black paramilitary outfit looks too smooth and cartoonish. Literally it looks like something out of Into the Spiderverse. Bringing back 20 year old Will Smith looks fine, partially because, at least at my age, we’re so familiar with what young Will Smith looked like, but every once in a while if feels like it falls right into the uncanny valley.
The tone of this movie is all over the place. It brings in Benedict Wong for Smith to trade old war story one-liners off of and Lee doesn’t stage it for comedy, literally moving the camera to obscure the line deliveries or swelling up dramatic music over it – and the performances are as bland as possible to achieve Lee’s end. The ending is this to a T – the script ending on a joke and Lee swelling up the heart-string music leaving the final impression completely baffling. The movie shoots itself in the foot like this over and over. None of this is helped by Smith who sleepwalks through the whole thing, The always charismatic Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes the most of a thankless 90s female action role in a movie that has so little use for women that the film’s child character was grown in a lab from two dudes who now compete to see who can be the best surrogate father. Not that a surrogate father story isn’t worthy, but Winstead can do (and has done) better.
A true grab bag, Gemini Man is a beautiful film with one spectacular action scene and a refreshingly old fashioned story structure that does a good job leading us into it’s sci fi elements and giving them weight – but man alive, is it inconsistent almost everywhere else – the tone, the performances, it’s unsettled idea if it should be fun or thoughtful. At the end of the day it isn’t either. It is awkwardly unfunny and not at all exciting.