Director: Ang Lee
Stars: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Released: 11th October 2019 (UK)
Ang Lee truly is one of the most versatile filmmakers of our generation: from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Life of Pi, his entire filmography is a wild ride of various genres and unique ideas. Most recently though, it seems like the Taiwanese auteur is going through his experimental phase, focusing much more on the technology of his cinematic language, rather than the distinctive storytelling approach of his earlier works. Back in 2016, Lee baffled audiences and cinema exhibitors with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a peculiarly bizarre 4K 120FPS 3D drama about an American soldier suffering from PTSD after coming back from Iraq. Although many critics (including yours truly) found the film’s satire of American jingoism and exploration of its intricate subject matter somewhat effective, most agreed that the much-advertised technological advancements hindered an otherwise modest character study. Lee’s latest, Gemini Man, once again boasts high frame rate 3D visuals and a stacked cast of A-list actors but utilizes them much more appropriately in this outré cinematic experience.
Originally conceived in 1997, Gemini Man went though multiple studios and alterations prior to finally landing in the hands of execs at Skydance and Paramount (who chose to back this project instead of Scorsese’s The Irishman). Originally written by Darren Lemke, the script has since had numerous rewrites (including one by David Benioff of the Game of Thrones fame) and has been essentially manufactured in a studio lab by a group of writing engineers. Taking that into account, the presence of Ang Lee on this project is somewhat surprising; following the troubled production of Hulk way back in 2003, he swore off commercial blockbuster cinema and even considered early retirement. Thankfully, when Lee came on board during the pre-production of Gemini Man, he also brought his fancy new tech to the table, and as a result we now have an HFR sci-fi blockbuster with multiple Will Smith’s and a goldmine of one-liners in what is probably one of the most absurdly earnest blockbusters since Jupiter Ascending.
Henry Brogan (Will Smith), a 51-year-old government assassin who simply wishes for a quiet retirement, is on the last mission: lying on his stomach on top of a grassy mountain, hands firmly positioned on a suppressed sniper rifle and his eyes fixated directly on the nearby railroad track. For the most valued veteran, this mission is fairly simple — it’s merely a headshot at a specific person who is in a train that runs at almost 300km/h. Upon successfully finishing his task (albeit with a tense setback), Henry realizes that the ghosts of his murderous past are too overwhelming, and it is finally time for this streak to stop. Sadly, there’s a problem: his younger, lab-created clone is sent to assassinate him and there’s absolutely nothing that could stop him but Henry himself.
From this very synopsis, Gemini Man’s intentions are noticeably clear: at its core, it’s a film that is so deeply rooted in the inherently fatuous 90s past of Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbusters that the questions of originality or logic never arise. Frankly, the script itself doesn’t really do any favors to neither the film’s vapid narrative nor the overly expository nature of plot development. And yet, Lee’s directing is strong enough to make a fun ride out of a potential disaster through clever uses of Will Smith’s charismatic performance and the technology that makes the film feel much more akin to a video game cutscene, rather than a cinematic endeavor. The strange novelty of seeing a film projected at 60 frames per second, fast-forwarding Will Smith’s gun reload action and bursting with vivid colors straight out of documentary filmmaking, proves to be much more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Strangely enough, despite the bland blockbuster fabric of Gemini Man, all of the recent Lee-isms are on display here: both “man playing God with nature” and “soldier with PTSD spat out by the system” are dominant points of discussion in the latter half of the film. Unfortunately, while the ambition is manifested through Lee’s crystal clear personal additions to the film’s finale, the writing once again trivializes the film’s intentions to a fairly straightforward espionage studio tentpole. But, again, this is the kind of studio fare that has Will Smith fighting his digitally-moulded Fresh Prince self, and you can’t be too mad at it for at least trying to bring something this bizarre to multiplexes that are currently playing Joker.
Pushing the uncanny valley aesthetic to absolute extremes, Gemini Man occasionally showcases some spectacular action set pieces. The adrenaline rush of seeing bikes utilized as deadly weapons, Will Smith getting brutally thrashed with bones, and assault rifles being shot from the first-person perspective, is unparalleled and incomparable to any other studio blockbuster out there — especially if you’re seeing it in 60/120 FPS. It’s the kind of genetically modified ride that doesn’t take itself too seriously and has fun with the delightfully old-fashioned sci-fi premise, all the while delivering an unconventional experience out of a rather pedestrian framework.
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