Synopsis: An over-the-hill hitman faces off against a younger clone of himself.
Stars: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Douglas Hodge
Director: Ang Lee
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: It isn’t uncommon for some movies to take a long time to get made. Like, a loooong time. Commonly referred to as development hell, a script can pass from studio to studio and be revised along the way as it is handed between directors and is attached to different stars. Quite a few Hollywood blockbusters and even more infamous bombs have toiled along this tortured route and the stories around their creation are either the hard-won tales of success or the blueprint of abject failure. Last year, we saw a success story with the third remake of A Star is Born which defied all odds and was a sensational retelling after gestating for nearly two decades. This year, another project that’s been in the works for twenty years is finally getting released…and strangely enough the lead (Will Smith) is the guy originally meant for A Star is Born when it was first developed.
You can do a quick Google search or look up the Wikipedia entry for Gemini Man and see all of the A-List stars and directors who have been mentioned as being involved with the film over the years. To give you an idea of how far back we’re talking, Sean Connery was one of the box-office draws considered for the role at one time or another. When the rights for the film were finally acquired by Tom Cruise’s production company in 2016 it was naturally assumed it would be for the white-hot actor to star in but instead he handed it over to Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (The Life of Pi), an exciting choice but a less-than-obvious one. When Will Smith signed on, Gemini Man actually started coming together and, coupled with Lee’s glee in utilizing advanced filmmaking technology, we have a visually arresting but dramatically stilted action film. It will definitely spike your adrenaline in the appropriate moments, just be prepared for some less than engaging dramatic shifts.
You’re advised to buckle up when the coming attractions are over because once the Paramount studios logo has faded and Gemini Man begins, there’s a lot of information thrown at you in short order. Government assassin Henry Brogan (Will Smith, Aladdin) has decided to retire after 72 kills. His aim isn’t quite on pointe anymore and the emotional toll is starting to wear him down. Plus, he just wants a little R & R at his peaceful homestead nestled in Buttermilk Sound, GA. Side note: has there ever been a more enticing name of a location to want to retire to? After meeting with an old friend with inside knowledge (Douglas Hodge, Joker), Brogan begins to suspect his last kill was a set-up and now he’s another loose end someone needs to trim. His dreams of serene sunsets as a retiree are dashed quickly as his suspicions are confirmed and he’s targeted by his former agency…and not just because they don’t want to pay extended benefits.
They’re dealing with a pro, though, and to take him down they’re going to need someone who can match him in every way. Lucky for the agency there’s been a covert project underway for years outsourced to a black ops unit run by Clay Varis (Clive Owen, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) operating under the codename Gemini and they’ve got a secret weapon ready for a test run. This all leads to Brogan globe hopping with a plucky agent (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and an gregarious ally (Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange) while trying to remain one step ahead of an unrelenting soldier that bears a striking resemblance to Brogan and seems to be able to anticipate his next move. What’s the secret behind the Gemini program and how far into the organization has the conspiracy infiltrated?
It’s already been revealed that the soldier pursuing Brogan is his clone and what a bummer that is to have had that spoiled in advance. I know that’s pretty much the entire idea the movie is marketed around but still, consider how much more interesting the film would have been if the identity of this unknown force was kept hidden just a little longer. The filmmakers sure try to pretend we all hadn’t seen the trailer a hundred times already, attempting to build up suspense for a reveal that doesn’t quite pan out like they planned. With Smith playing both roles and being de-aged to play his younger self, it works some of the time but more often than not looks creepy. It’s as if Smith is entirely a CGI creation and not just his face. The lips don’t always match what his mouth is saying and during some action sequences I swear there are times when Smith’s head is in one place and his face is in another.
Speaking of action sequences, this is the real reason to catch the movie on the biggest screen possible. Three key bonkers scenes are the total highlight of the film. A motorcycle chase through Cartagena is a caffeinated delight, culminating in one Will Smith literally beating up another one with a motorcycle. An impressive fight is staged throughout the catacombs of Budapest and the finale is just the right length without pummeling us with too much gunfire. It’s too bad this wasn’t screened for critics the way Lee had intended; the film was shot digitally at an extra-high frame rate of 120 fps, modified for 3D and I could see where the impact of some of scenes would have been raised if I’d seen it projected like the director wanted. I’m probably not going to see this again in theaters so it was the one opportunity to impress me and seeing it projected flat on a 2D display wasn’t cutting it.
Sadly, there’s a lot of movie left over in between all the action and while it’s all beautifully shot by Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns), it’s suffers from a too-serious dramatic performance from Smith. Smith has long since proven he’s an actor that can headline a summer blockbuster as well as an awards contender but along the way he lost his ear for good dialogue and characters that didn’t aggravate. He’s more easy-going here than he’s been in a long time but there’s still a desperate need to make what’s mostly a generic action flick more than what it is. Everyone else seems to understand what level of movie they’re in but it’s like Smith thinks that with Lee directing him he has a shot at an Oscar if he emotes extra hard. His action scenes are spectacular, his dramatic ones are tough to get through.
Twenty years is a long time for a movie to move through a production cycle and the results of Gemini Man are good but not great. I was surely entertained for two hours and it’s nice to see Lee continue to surprise by showing there’s not a genre he can’t tackle with some measure of success. I still wish a bit more of the twists had been held back early on but at least there was one genuine surprise that wasn’t hinted at in early previews. If you’re going to see this in theaters, and you likely should, go see it the way the filmmaker intended and spring for the extra charge to see it in 3D HFR. I have a feeling Lee will make it worth your while.