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Two Will Smiths do not make a right in ‘Gemini Man’

| Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Claire Kopischke

For all its technical wizardry and for every commercial that claims “you’ve never seen anything like it” — “Gemini Man” is a movie you have certainly seen before.

Quite an obvious reason for that has to do with the film’s script, which sat rotting in development hell for 20 years — literally. First conceived by acclaimed screenwriter of “Shrek Forever After,” Darren Lemke, in 1997, “Gemini Man” is now credited to three writers and is said to have passed through the hands of countless others along the way. The result is a film so aggressively generic in its plot that it plays like bad deja vu. “Gemini Man” may be directed by the well-respected Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Life of Pi”), but its insides are entirely Jerry Bruckheimer. Had it been made, as intended, in the 90s, maybe we would look back and smile with nostalgia. But with its release 20 years later in 2019, “Gemini Man” doesn’t quite hit the mark.

To be fair, the selling point of “Gemini Man” isn’t so much its story but rather how Lee, cinematographer Dion Beebe and the talented folks at Weta Digital decided to tell it. The film is shot at 120 frames per second (fps), five times the average Hollywood frame rate, it can be viewed in 3D and it utilizes elaborate de-aging technology, allowing Will Smith to play both a 50-year-old hit man as well as his 20-year-old clone. If such technological achievements are what a film should be rated on, then “Gemini Man” is mostly a success. With the exception of the film’s final moments, the young Smith created in a computer looks no less lifelike than his actual self. In fact, many of the story’s most dramatic moments rest entirely on his doppelganger’s shoulders. Smith’s performance here is not only a reminder of his oft-forgotten acting capabilities, but a testament to the de-aging software itself.

Yet of equal importance to the technology’s success is the high frame rate at which Lee and Beebe had the picture filmed. The director experimented with something similar on “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” with cinematographer John Toll in 2016. The gimmick, despite the nonsense of the story it accompanies, pleasantly surprises. The unique increased frame speed takes some adjusting to, but after the first few scenes it begins to feel natural. The action sequences filmed in 120fps are especially kinetic. With hyperrealism and ultra-clarity making every blow more painful, Lee’s long takes help to immerse you so completely in the action that they truly make you feel like you’re there — in an un-cliched way. This speed of frame also helps blend the delicate nature of digital de-aging. Because the movie already looks like a video game, a young Smith blends in smoothly, and the “uncanny valley” to which he could have belonged is neatly avoided.

If only the technology was in service of a good story. Yes, de-aging and a unique method of filming are appropriate implementations for the story of a film like “Gemini Man,” but the screenplay which gives them a canvas to work on is abysmal. One of the reasons for such may be that time has not been kind to the the genre it concerns. Since 1997, plenty of thrillers about shady government agencies betraying their own people and superhero movies about scientifically engineered super-soldiers have graced the silver screens with limited success. In combining these tropes, “Gemini Man” only doubles down on its datedness.

The characterization of the players within such a lackluster plot do not do it any favors. Every major role is reduced to a three-word SparkNotes summary — that is, if they’re given only a personality to revolve around. At one point, for no particular reason Smith makes reference to his deadly bee allergy. “I wonder if this randomly specific detail is trying to foreshadow something!” you say, cringing in your recliner at dialogue too awkward to be an accident. In another scene, Smith and an old pal discuss whether they should drink a cool can of Coca-Cola™ or an ice cold draft of Anheuser-Busch™. Their logos are crisply captured in 4K HD. Who could have possibly allowed this to happen?

But, alas, every time watched, the movie runs its length. It isn’t until the second half of it that we finally meet the killer clone. As a result, the whole film feels not only lopsided, but also quite poorly paced. Smith’s quasi-love interest (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) decides to show up as well alongside his nemesis (Clive Owen) and his wisecracking best friend (Benedict Wong) in performances of epically abhorrent proportions. And when the Fresh Prince finally does arrive, the movie not only attempts to treat it as a twist, but also completely glosses over the psychological ramifications of such a discovery.

Instead, it moves on. At least that means it ends a little sooner.

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