Will Smith versus Will Smith sounds like a premise from the 1990s, and Gemini Man doesn’t do enough to elevate itself above a rather empty screenplay.
Henry Brogan is a hitman and assassin who wants out, but when one of his targets turns out to be of vital importance to a shadowy organisation, he himself becomes a target. But the assassin sent after him is all too familiar.
Director Ang Lee surprised everyone with his previous big hit Life of Pi, as well as Brokeback Mountain, although some of us still remember his disastrous interpretation of the Marvel hero of the same name: Hulk. His main star this time is also looking for a big hit, Will Smith has done some reasonable damage to his action blockbuster career with Suicide Squad, Bright, After Earth, and a tough role to fulfil in Aladdin. Despite all of this, he still has the magnetic charm he has always had, and even if some of his films are lacking, it is rarely his input that is objectively bad.
Gemini Man‘s principle idea is to have Smith play one of the greatest assassins ever known, so good in fact that when his benefactors want him out of the picture, the best man to take him down… is him. Enter a cloned Smith, or rather his character Henry, but younger by over two decades. This is done with combinations of de-ageing computer effects, stunt doubles and face swaps. Director Ang Lee has been vocal about the film’s requirement of high resolution viewing (it was filmed in 4K) as well as in HFR (high frame rate) format as it was filmed at 120fps, considering films are regularly filmed in 24 frames per second, and only Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy had committed to an HFR release previously. This, Lee states, is for the digitally tinkered “young Henry” to be as convincing as possible.
Cinema Cocoa did in fact see the film in HFR 3D. Despite having not seen it twice to compare the regular frame rate version, it is safe to say that HFR had little increase of overall quality. It is possible that digital Will Smith had higher fidelity in this format; the effect was exceptionally good.
But pushing technical aspects to one side, it is safe to say that Gemini Man is… average. The reference to the 1990s is not unfounded either; the project has been in development hell since that time, and was originally a Disney venture. It has gone through multiple iterations in production; from having Clint Eastwood, Nicolas Cage and even Mel Gibson at different stages over twenty years.
Considering all of this, it is surprising it is as good as it is.
But the film is appallingly straight-forward. At first, one might consider this to be Smith’s own Jason Bourne; the action can be intense and well choreographed, especially when considering vehicular action. One particular chase on motorbikes is exciting and inventive, while the gun play and choreography of gun play is especially good early on. There’s intrigue, there’s shadowy government agencies, mad science, and at the centre of it all a broken man who sees a chance to save himself from his own past.
Then… it stops being interesting.
Gemini Man really does its own lead character a disservice, mostly through the film’s true villain, Clive Owen’s Clay Verris. While the duality of the two Henrys could have been interesting, a sort of nature vs nurture debate with one being tired and world-weary and the other being raised purely as an assassin. But Verris is so unrelentingly evil that there is no redemption for him. Even younger Henry’s dependency on Verris as a father and son unit does not last in the light of Verris’s own inhuman cruelties. Any ambiguity vanishes within the second act, making the third act surprisingly underwhelming and weightless. Oh, and also introduces a massive plothole. In requiring a spectacular finale, the writers went and shot themselves in the foot.
Will Smith is a great actor, he has proven himself before, and certainly the undercurrents between Henry and “Junior” are probably the best elements of the film outside of its action sequences. But the story takes an unremarkable line with a deliberately evil villain, giving our heroes very little agency to fight each other. Then we have Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has an amazingly thankless task of occasionally pushing the plot forward, and also having to strip for very little reason. Another actor with great talent just… collecting a paycheck. At least Benedict Wong appears to be enjoying himself!
Overall, it isn’t a bad film, there are certainly worse action films out there. The de-ageing tech on show is very impressive, there isn’t a discordance when watching the two characters act together, and the film does not shy away from it either; they converse frequently. But don’t expect the deep morality tale that could have been born from its premise, it isn’t all that.
Additional Marshmallows: Also, don’t be thrown by the line “What if someone actually knew what we really are?” from the trailer, it isn’t in the film and that isn’t an actual mystery.
It is something of a generous 3 star rating, there is nothing worse than a deceptive trailer.