REVIEW – ‘Gemini Man’ is a shallow piece of cinema that leaves you wanting more

In a year where we’re being offered not one, not two, but three (!) films starring varying digital creations of Will Smith, only one seeks to give you a double dose of the Fresh Prince within the same picture. Yes, it’s finally time for the crazy clone film studio executives have been attempting to produce since 1997. Maybe they should have left this one in the 90s where it belonged.

With a two-time Academy Award-winning director at the helm, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer behind the camera, and the use of groundbreaking new technology to craft its many visual wonders, Gemini Man certainly looks good on paper. But the screenplay on that paper is co-written by one of the guys who ran Game of Thrones into the ground. And therein lies the problem.

While there are numerous technical splendours to be found within Gemini Man, they ultimately mask a film beset with a painfully silly plot, disastrous dialogue, and a host of uninteresting and faintly crafted characters. Lauded as a game-changing moment for cinema, the chance to see Will Smith play a 25-year-old version of himself is indeed a tantalising gimmick. Sadly, there’s little else to see here.

At 51 years old, government assassin Henry Brogan (Smith) has decided to hang up his gun for good. After the 72nd kill of his career is just six inches away from going wrong, Henry can feel the precision of his once razor-sharp skills slipping and his conscience is starting to get the better of him. Walking away from the Defense Intelligence Agency, Henry plans to enjoy a quiet life of retirement back at his ranch in Georgia. But after visiting with former agent pal Jack Willis (Douglas Hodge), Henry stumbles onto a conspiracy surrounding his final target who may or may not have deserved the bullet Henry left in his neck.

While at the local docks, Henry also discovers an undercover DIA agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has been sent to keep tabs on his post-retirement movements. Life only gets more complicated when a group of DIA assassins swoop on Henry’s home to eliminate the former agent before he digs any deeper. Naturally, he eliminates every last one of them before whisking off to track down Danny, convinced she’s also part of the conspiracy. But when Danny convinces Henry she knew nothing of the attempted assassination, the pair join forces and flee together.

Pulling the strings of the failed assassination operation is Henry’s nefarious former mentor and commanding officer Clay Varis (Clive Owen), who now heads a rogue agency known as Gemini. When his men fail to terminate Henry, Clay soon realises there’s only one man who can bring him down – a clone of Henry known as Junior, who Clay created 25 years earlier and has since raised as his own son. Trained to be free of emotional attachment, Junior is a super-soldier in the making with his eyes firmly set on achieving the task set by his pseudo-father.

When the two men first do battle, both Henry and Junior are perplexed as to how their counterpart seems to anticipate their every move, making them seemingly impossible to kill. It’s only once the dust settles and the two men get a good look at each other do they realise the stunning truth. With the assistance of Danny and his faithful confidant Baron (Benedict Wong), Henry sets about uncovering the truth behind the secretive Gemini operation and how to defeat, well, himself.

Given the marketing for this film, it’s rather baffling Gemini Man spends a good 40 minutes keeping Junior hidden before a big reveal that will only come as a shock to those going into this movie entirely cold. Maybe those audiences still exist somewhere on this planet, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a viewer going into this film who hasn’t at least seen the film’s poster with two versions of Will Smith facing off against each other.

It’s this dual-role gimmick that’s just one of the exhaustive bag of tricks director Ang Lee throws on the screen, hoping something will stick. There’s a hell of a lot going on in this film and very little of it proves remotely effective. While it’s undoubtedly an enticing novelty to see Smith battle against a digitally de-aged version of himself, it’s a contrivance that wears off relatively quickly, leaving you with a film that’s technologically impressive but painfully hollow everywhere else.

This project has been languishing around Hollywood for the better part of 20 years, waiting for technology to catch up to make it all possible. It’s likely what attracted Lee to the project, given his recent penchant for films utilising groundbreaking technology as yet unseen by audiences, like those employed in the spectacular Life of Pi and the god-awful Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. As seen in the latter, he’s shooting here again in the ultra-high frame rate of 120 frames per second, which still seems like a technology with a long way to go.

The best way to describe the viewing experience of Gemini Man is similar to that motion-smoothing option you’ve likely turned off on your flat-screen television at home. While the imagery is painfully crisp and achingly sharp, it ultimately gives the film a bizarre aesthetic that proves rather unsettling. The end result simply does not look like a motion picture. And maybe that’s entirely the point. Regardless, it presents an experience that’s genuinely unenjoyable.

With the higher frame rate, movements consistently look entirely unnatural, particularly any time a character is required to run or jump, which constantly look as if they’d been unintentionally sped up to inhuman levels. At a certain point, you almost expect to be informed Junior has actually been genetically-enhanced, given the unbelievable ways the character jarringly glides around scenes with the grace of the vampires from Twilight.

Coupled with the higher-frame rate projection, Gemini Man is being released in something called 3D+, which is being heralded as the new age of 3D viewing experience. You can almost hear James Cameron cheering with joy, as he awaits to finally deliver Avatar 2 in a few years. We were informed this new technology would put us “right in the action.” Sure, there is a more immersive feel to this additional gimmick and the 3D elements appear far more detailed, but hardly anything that befits the marketing spin.

In essence, Gemini Man feels more like a video game than a film. And not a particularly good game, at that. As the film pointlessly plods from set piece to set piece, it’s akin to jumping from level to level inside the latest PS4 game that you’re either playing or watching someone else partake in. Before each epic showdown, the characters bark out their expository dialogue, as if you’re being fed lines on what to expect next as a multi-player within each scenario.

Lee even switches to unnecessary POV shots during key moments, which only further highlights the video game feel to this film. At one point when a character is being strangled, you almost feel like you should be furiously tapping the X button to break free and defeat the big boss. Perhaps this is all the result of this 3D+ rabble and we are in fact meant to feel completely entrenched within the action. Frankly, what you’re immersed in isn’t all that interesting, to begin with.

What Gemini Man mostly gets right is the impressive de-aging of Smith, with Junior truly looking like the actor we knew back in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air days. It’s a monumental shift that takes this technology to scary new places which genuinely make you question where this is all heading. We’ve seen actors made to look slightly younger with smoother skin and fewer wrinkles, but this is a total reconstruction of Smith’s entire face, head, and body, and the end result is actually rather unsettling.

While the moments where both versions of Smith appear on screen are completely seamless and their battle scenes are expertly executed, there are some noticeable issues with the syncing between his mouth and speech, often making Junior look more like an animatronic at Disneyland than a human being. Junior constantly appears in shadows and darkness, and the reason becomes abundantly clear in the film’s conclusion where we finally see him in daylight, which elicited genuine laughs from the audience.

For all its technological wizardry, Gemini Man is ultimately undone by its woeful script, full of stilted dialogue, thinly drawn characters, and an absurd plot that fails to even bother exploring the origins of its important cloning elements. Neither Henry or Junior are remotely interesting characters, causing Smith to deliver a one-note performance within two action heroes that are both as dull as dishwater. It’s obviously a technical feat to pull off performing two versions of a character separated by 25 years, but even Smith can’t bring anything of flair to either of his roles.

Owen and Wong are both entirely wasted in roles that do nothing more than providing some brief escapism from the mindless action scenes. Thankfully, Wong does offer some levity to lighten things up, but the film would have been wise to utilise him further. Screenwriters David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke have no idea what to do with Winstead, who’s relegated to a character who does nothing more than offer constant exposition in every scene. There’s a minor hint at a romantic connection between Henry and Danny, but this is frustratingly never further explored.

When all is said and done, Gemini Man certainly pushes the envelope in a technological sense. Yet, once again, Lee is far more focused on crafting something visually spectacular and leaving everything else by the wayside. Strip away its visual gimmicks and the flaws of this film are garishly exposed. Once the wonders of the spectacle subside, you’re left with a shallow piece of cinema that leaves you wanting more. As it turns out, two Will Smiths do not equal one great film.

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Theodora Miranne, Douglas Hodge
Director: Ang Lee
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger
Screenplay: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke
Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Music: Lorne Balfe
Production Design: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Editing: Tim Squyres
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: 10th October January (Australia)