GEMINI MAN – Review
Will Smith fans get a double dose of the star in the action thriller GEMINI MAN, where Smith plays a retired assassin who is being targeted by a younger version of himself. This film is action-heavy but less sci-fi than the premise might suggest, and the most surprising thing about this conventional action thriller is that it is directed by Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning director of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, LIFE OF PI, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and the oft-overlooked gem RIDE WITH THE DEVIL.
Basically, GEMINI MAN is a movie for Will Smith fans rather than Ang Lee fans. Focused on showcasing its star, this action film uses a whole toolbox of tried-and-true action tropes, like chases through crowded streets, one-on-one face-of fights and familiar plot devices and character types. This movie is not about the plot so much as the action and its star. While nothing happens that you don’t expect, GEMINI MAN provides plenty of popcorn entertain for Will Smith fans.
While the story and action are unremarkable, it does use an innovative technique to allow Will Smith to also play a younger version of himself. Rather than using the usual CGI de-aging, this film used motion-capture and then replaces the face of the younger assassin, played by a stunt double in fight scenes and Smith in other scenes. That may sound easy but in fact it is incredibly difficult to do with a human face, as opposed to an ape-like face or fantasy creature, due to a psychological effect called the “uncanny valley,” where a face that is very nearly human but not quite creates a feeling of unease in the viewer. GEMINI MAN’s effects succeed in this respect, and to best appreciate that, you would have to see the film in a theater that shows it in the 120 frames-per-second speed in 3D as intended, which reportedly no US theaters are doing. Without that, GEMINI MAN is otherwise an unremarkable actioner.
Of course, that may not matter to Will Smith fans, who will just go along for the escapist entertainment ride and may not even notice the special effects accomplishment. And this is not the only action thriller Ang Lee has helmed, having directed the comic book actioner HULK. Just as stars often do paycheck movies to fund another passion project film, that may be what Ang Lee is doing here. The film is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and bears more of his mark than Lee’s.
GEMINI MAN is really all about the gimmick of a CGI younger Will Smith fighting the older Will Smith, but fans probably won;t mind. Smith plays an master assassin named Henry who just want to retire from U.S. government service. His handler agrees to let him go but his former mentor, played by Clive Owen, who is now an independent contractor with the agency, has other plans. and sends a younger cloned version of the retired assassin to kill him. As the older Henry fends off his younger self, he tries to unravel the mystery of who he is and why he wants to kill him, in a globe-trotting quest, with the help of pilot buddy Benedict Wong and young spy Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
GEMINI MAN serves its purpose as a vehicle for its star. Will Smith delivers his usual on-screen charm, while the action sequences putting him through his movie star paces. Clive Owen delivers the required creepiness as the architect of this cloning scheme, while … play the required support roles to get the hero where he needs to be, although none of this makes much of a demand on the supporting cast.. The concept has a little fun as it allows the older Will Smith character to indulge that common fantasy of talking to his younger self, and it is clear Smith is relishing those bits. But while the film’s premise of having Smith battling and pursued by his younger self has some thought-provoking potential, the film leaves most of that on the table untouched.
The film recycles plenty from other action/sci-fi thrillers, including THE MATRIX, JOHN WICK, the Bourne movies, even Charlize Theron’s ATOMIC BLONDE- enough so that an action-thriller fan could almost make a game out of checking off the references to other better action films. Even casting Owen in this role hearkens back to the Bourne movies, as he now runs a secret organization turning people into enhanced, weaponized assassins. In this case, he sends a younger version on Smith’s character to assassin at the assassin. If you saw the trailer, there are no spoilers there, as it gives you that much,as does Smith making the talk show rounds,
Promotion of the film has made much of its technical side. The movie uses 125 frame per second hyper-realism, 3D effects and a digitally-created human rather than the usual GCI effects to create the younger assassin Junior. The film uses motion-capture on the stunt man battling Will Smith in hand-to-hand action and on Smith himself playing the young assassin Junior. Instead of using de-aging CGI, Smith’s face is replaced with an animated version, a daunting technical feat with the human face where a near-miss creates an unsettling effect called the “uncanny valley.” The effect succeeds in avoiding that, an impressive accomplishment, but there are moments when the digitally-created face sometimes appears a bit off. The effect works best in the action sequences but less well in some of the others, when it seems too obvious that this is a super-imposed face.
At the same time, GEMINI MAN also depends heavily on a very old movie technique, speeded-up action, which has been used since he silent movie era (when it was called under-cranking) to create tension and energy in the action sequences. One of the best action sequences is featured in the movie’s trailer, involving a fight with motorcycle, although much of the chase that proceeds it references the Bourne movies. Other action sequences draw on similar scenes from THE MATRIX and JOHN WICK movies, and others.
None of that is to say the film does not succeed in its mission, which is to just deliver action thrills featuring the star. GEMINI MAN fully does that. Still, if you are thinking about seeing GEMINI MAN because it is directed by Ang Lee, you should check those expectations beyond the technical. If you are a Will Smith fan, this film satisfies that itch. For popcorn-munching escapist entertainment, GEMINI MAN may be your ticket but it you are expecting something more, better hold off for the other awards-season movies on the way in the coming months.
RATING: 2 out of 4 stars