Ang Lee is one of those great directors who has made a lot of terrible films: The Ice Storm, Hulk, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and now Gemini Man, a dusty artifact of a script livened up with bleeding-edge technology. It’s a fair debate whether the moldy script or the brand-new tech is its most regrettable aspect.
I’m going to go with the tech: Lee is not just a screen artist (Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) but also technically adventurous. He’s one of the few top-flight filmmakers who is fascinated with 3D filmmaking, a fad that is now fading for the third time after dying in the ’50s and ’80s. Some directors hate 3D (notably Christopher Nolan), and others grudgingly allow 3D versions of their films to play on some screens to goose ticket prices, but Lee is an actual booster of the format. On top of that, he’s one of the few major directors trying to push filmmaking into the realm of super-high-definition images. He did this to disastrous effect in 2016’s PTSD drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was shot with 120 frames per second instead of the usual 24. The look is akin to what you see on recent televisions that have the motion-smoothing effect, also known as the soap opera effect. The images are so dazzling that they look terrible.
Billy Lynn was a notorious catastrophe, yet Lee is giving it one more go with the Will Smith vehicle Gemini Man, a much more expensive film that has a third gimmick to go with the 3D and the high frame rate: Will Smith plays both a 51-year-old character and a 23-year-old version of the same. Watch Will fight himself! This is a pretty cheesy idea in itself but, together with the tech and the 1990s-style screenplay, it’s as if Cheddartown blew up and landed on Gorgonzolaville. The filming style makes all acting look bad and all action look contrived. It’s as if we’re watching a live Disney World stunt show; it’s impossible to get lost in the story because everything seems like it’s being staged right in front of you. The clarity of the images is a paradox: Because it strips away the veneer that makes illusions work, it plays as both hyper-real and hyper-fake. Even if Gemini Man weren’t clotted with dated tough-guy banter that’s strictly out of a Rainer Wolfcastle flick (“We need a missile and YOU are the missile” is the kind of thing the super-assassins tell each other), it would come across as a two-hour cringe of a movie. It’s baffling that Lee is doubling down after Billy Lynn was so soundly rejected, but after this movie flops, I expect the question of high-frame-rate filmmaking to be settled.
Smith’s character Henry Brogan is a hit man working for one of those secret spy agencies within the spy agencies. He is heading for retirement when he gets double-crossed by the spook (Clive Owen) in charge of the new Gemini project and is forced to go. On. The. Run. While a team of expert killers gives chase, in Georgia, Henry joins forces with a marina worker named Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is actually an undercover super-spy herself. Yes, this is one of those movies where a 93-pound woman lays waste to a series of expertly trained 200-pound men and yet we’re not supposed to laugh.
The fastest, sharpest killer on Henry’s trail is Junior, the 23-year-old Will Smith. Young Smith looks fantastic. Hollywood’s latest obsession is digitally de-aging older actors, and we all marveled at this effect when it appeared just three years ago in Captain America: Civil War, which de-aged Robert Downey Jr. Now the technology is all but finished, pretty much seamless. I’d hate to be starting out as a young actor today.
Junior, as the younger man is known, has been raised as a son by the Clive Owen character, who taught him to be an expert killer to succeed Henry when the latter loses a step. Danny, scooping up some DNA from each man after one of their fights, confirms what we’ve all been suspecting: Junior is a clone of Henry. The movie never quite clarifies what a man is supposed to call a younger copy of himself: Son? Bro? Dupe? Re-run? You can tell the movie is aimed at fans who are Smith’s actual age because creaky old Henry is shown getting the drop on frisky young Junior in lots of ways. I don’t see too many 51-year-old athletes dunking on 23-year-olds, but it’s comforting to think Hollywood still thinks wisdom and experience can compensate for middle-aged decay.
VIEW GALLERY: Gemini Man Premiere
Seen on an airplane with a garden-variety video monitor, this hokey formula thriller would be a serviceable action yarn for middle-aged dudes who like sipping a glass of whiskey from their tray table. Occasionally the macho shop talk is amusing; only after Henry tells us several times about all the victims he has “AMF’d” do we learn that this means “Adios, Motherf***er.” But not only are the technological filigrees completely inappropriate for this B movie, they actually make it worse.