REVIEW: Gemini Man [2019]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 117 minutes
    Release Date: October 11th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Paramount Pictures
    Director(s): Ang Lee
    Writer(s): David Benioff and Billy Ray and Darren Lemke / David Benioff and Darren Lemke (story)

I just want some peace.

It took twenty years, multiple rewrites, and a who’s who list of directors and stars, but Gemini Man finally made it to the big screen. And original scribe Darren Lemke kept his story and screenplay credits through everything. That says something considering these development hell miracles too often become abominations so far removed from their auspicious beginnings that there’s no sign of what got studios excited in the first place. David Benioff and Billy Ray earned their place beside him with Ang Lee putting his high frame rate (HFR) stamp on its visual style, but the central notion of a man fighting his ghosts (and demons) remained. It might ultimately prove the only thing the project truly possesses, but that hook is more than enough to be worthwhile.

I say this because the film doesn’t care the science fiction conceit behind it. If you’ve seen the trailers you know America’s best sniper assassin (Will Smith‘s Henry Brogan) is being hunted down by his former military commander Clay Verris (Clive Owen) via a clone half his age. Verris raised this soldier (named Junior and played by an effectively de-aged Smith) as his son in an attempt to create a weapon with Brogan’s full power minus the emotional baggage caused by a troubled childhood and lingering regrets. Do the filmmakers delve into the ramifications of this besides how it allows for a cool action premise? No. All they care about is the superficial result of Brogan’s past versus present and what it means to the here and now.

They had the ability to go further with new wrinkles like the idea that Verris could breed super soldiers impervious to pain in Brogan’s likeness being floated, but the ethics of such technological advancements are brushed aside with a line of dialogue. I do get it, though. Where a heady sci-fi would focus on the morality of warfare, (Are the deaths of unfeeling clones worth the same as humans mourned by family and friends?), Gemini Man can default to the belief that its action-starved viewers know Verris is wrong. This baseline ensures he’s the villain from frame one and we can simply watch to find out how Brogan defeats him. Can he open Junior’s eyes to his “dad’s” evil? Or must he take them both out?

This also allows us to spend quality time with Brogan removed from what’s coming. The opening of the film therefore provides a hero’s introduction. We meet him on his current job with an impossible shot. Then there are interactions with his partner (E.J. Bonilla‘s Marino), handler (Ralph Brown‘s Del), and an old friend with an incendiary piece of intelligence (Douglas Hodge‘s Jack). The latter reveals that this last kill might have been supplied under false pretenses—the kind that would make anyone who knew a liability for those who ordered it (Verris and Linda Emond‘s Janet Lassiter). So what should have been the start of his retirement (a celebration since we’re supposed to applaud an assassin who murders bad guys) quickly becomes a fight for survival.

Verris sends Junior as a one-man wrecking crew while Brogan enlists the help of a woman swept up into the drama (Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s Danny) and an old marine buddy pilot in Benedict Wong‘s Baron. One skirmish leads to another on multiple continents until a conversation can be had about who and what Junior is in the grand scheme of life. We learn new details right along with Brogan and company, but only those things that help us move to the next setting for more explosive action. That is the ultimate goal after all: old versus new, athleticism versus experience. And it looks gorgeous with Lee’s intentional use of 3D and first-person to put us in the frame and experience it with an unparalleled visual clarity.

For all the quieter moments where things look “soap opera fake” because of the amount of information our brains are processing at once, the adrenaline-pounding set-pieces on motorcycles and rooftops more than compensate for that “cheapness” (for lack of a better term). Where our minds blur things in 24 frames per second to fill the gaps, Lee’s HFR of 120 fps puts it all on display. So when both characters are moving at breakneck speeds with gun sights lining up their targets, we can see through that tiny window as though we’re the one holding the rifle. Close-quarter fisticuffs in catacombs stay crisp and clear too despite faces being pushed into walls or leg whips knocking bodies to the ground, the 3D still seamless across the entire screen.

Watching Gemini Man in a theater with HFR is therefore the only way to truly witness Lee’s vision. While the experience is better for it, however, the film’s quality isn’t automatically better too. Think of this as a showcase for the technology and how it enhances those scenes that can use it to excel. So it’s crucial that the quality of the script and performances rise to the occasion to take our attention off the weirdness of those scenes that don’t. The latter is great here with Smith putting in an emotional performance as Brogan and Junior while Winstead and Wong bring stability and humor to complement him. Owen is good too, but he’s never given the room to be more than a two-dimensional antagonist out for himself.

And that speaks to the film’s downfall: narrative depth. It’s simply not present. Everyone and everything has its purpose to the whole and there are few if any surprises along the way. We know Brogan has a heart and Verris doesn’t so the sole example of character development comes courtesy of Junior choosing between nature and nurture. I would have liked the decision to be given more weight as far as struggle goes, but the film often relegates him to the background so Brogan can keep the spotlight. The direction Junior chooses is thus less about his own wellbeing and more about how it will help or hurts his DNA provider’s chances of staying alive. Rather than include important themes for introspection, they’re here merely as plot devices.

[1] Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Will Smith in Gemini Man from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.© 2019 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Will Smith, and Benedict Wong in Gemini Man from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.© 2019 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Clive Owen and Will Smith as “Junior” in Gemini Man from Paramount Pictures, Sydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.© 2019 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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