Advanced Technology Can’t Hide the Creakiness of This Story
DIRECTED BY ANG LEE/2019
The screen is thick with aging action heroes these days. Tom Cruise, in his mid-50s, does his own spectacular stunts in the Mission Impossible movies; Keanu Reeves, now double-nickles, awes with his fight choreography in the John Wick series; and I, for one, am excited to see Linda Hamilton make her return as Sarah Connors in the upcoming Terminator: Dark Fate. She looks pretty great in the trailer.
Will Smith is “only” 51, but his new film, Gemini Man, deals openly with aging, obsolescence, with being replaced by a younger model – concerns that haunt the still youth-obsessed film industry. All those aging stars commanding the screen are still expected to appear unnaturally youthful: to remain absolutely ripped; to be accompanied by much younger potential love interests; to obscure sagging skin beneath spanks or beard stubble. I wonder what it was like for Smith to see himself onscreen – graying, a bit thicker these days, a few lines on his face – opposite the Fresh Prince version of himself. I’d reckon that could cause one to have a serious encounter with mortality. Or maybe not, since Gemini Man is not an especially thoughtful or reflective movie. Director Ang Lee has made some very fine, deeply human films – The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain. But his recent films seem more concerned with pushing technological advances to the limit than telling a story. Life of Pi was a good film, though heavily dependent on CGI. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk seemed to make little impression except as a breakthrough in high speed (120 frames per second), 4k high definition digital filming. Gemini Man brings it all together: shot in 120 fps, 4k, 3D, and featuring a fully digital character, the aforementioned young Will Smith.
“Old” Smith is Henry Brogan, a government assassin, the best of the best, who has 72 kills on his conscience and feels his precision slipping. He wants his last job, shooting an alleged terrorist through the window of a high speed train, to be his last job. But you know how it is: announcing your retirement is a movie recipe for disaster. In this case, no sooner has Henry said goodbye to his handler than an old friend tips him off that his last target was not a terrorist, but a research scientist. Henry has been manipulated into doing the dirty work for a black ops project called GEMINI, run by Clay Verris (Clive Owen). Unfortunately, the powers that be hear Henry being tipped off and not only kill his friend but set out to kill him as well.
But Henry is the best of the best, after all, and terminates the entire squad of black ops soldiers sent after him. Soon he’s on the run with Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a government agent assigned to surveil him who almost instantly became his friend and thus, a target herself. Accompanied by another old friend, Baron (Benedict Wong), Henry and Danny travel first to Colombia, then to Hungary, then back to Georgia where Henry and Verris both live – all in an attempt to uncover GEMINI’s secrets, and always being pursued by a very able young assassin who bears an uncanny resemblance to Henry.
Since it’s all over Gemini Man’s trailer, I don’t consider it a spoiler to reveal that the young doppleganger, “Junior”, is a clone. At some point in his career Verris used a blood sample from Henry to begin building an army of super soldiers. Junior was the first run, still relatively human. But the bigger plan is to create merciless, unstoppable killers – incapable of feeling either pain or empathy.
Gemini Man has been batted around the film industry since 1997. This may explain why a new film feels so creaky. How many films have been made about mad scientists trying to build a “new breed of soldiers”? How many clone films have we had? How many films about the world weary foot soldier for a corrupt government being pulled back in just when he thought he could walk away? How often has the “one last job” trope been used? The script is predictable, the characters not especially bright or plausible. Danny abandons her commitment to her job at almost lightning speed, which makes me wonder about the screening process she went through when she was hired by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Henry spends much of the film trying to figure out how Verris always knows where he is, failing to consider the most obvious explanation. As for Junior, he is somewhere between ruthless murderer and moody teen (although the character is 23).
Gemini Man offers some decent action, particularly a chase scene which culminates in Henry being punched in the face with a motorcycle. Some of the film’s action is dark and murky, though, and the fight choreography so rapid that I had trouble following (much less appreciating) what was happening.
The worst failing of Gemini Man, however, was that Junior didn’t look quite human. Ang Lee didn’t use a de-aging process as was used on Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel. Junior is not Will Smith with the wrinkles and the gray removed: he is an entirely digital creation, and it shows. In dimly lit scenes, it works well enough. But in bright lighting, Junior looks like a doll – plastic, shiny, too smooth. The gap, however small, between human Will Smith and digital Will Smith was enough to take me out of the story over and over again.
It’s possible that the reason Gemini Man’s tech didn’t quite work for me was because of the limitations of the screening I attended. I wasn’t seeing it in 4K, or 3D, and certainly not at 120 fps (only a handful of theaters around the country are able to show it at that speed). And regardless of the reason that I didn’t find the onscreen clone entirely convincing, the technology is close enough that I’m sure someone will get it right in the near future. Perhaps it will be Ang Lee himself. And that raises interesting questions. If we can just digitally render actors as their younger selves, the “he or she is too old for that role” challenge will evaporate. Tom Cruise at 80 could still look 50 onscreen. Elderly Keanu Reeves could appear digitally in John Wick 15. But do we want that? Will we lose something precious when our films are populated by actors who are not really actors, but simulacrums? It’s a bit ironic to have a movie confront the ethics of cloning by creating a cinematic clone.
But I’m getting lost in deeper questions again, and Gemini Man is not a deep enough movie to warrant it. Behind the advanced cinematic illusions, it’s just a middling action film with a stale story. A double dose of Will Smith can’t fix that.