Ang Lee is not a director to be beaten down by past failure. After “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” was met with an onslaught of negative press, Lee simply responded by carrying forward with his goal of radically altering the moviegoing experience. Thus “Gemini Man” was born after twenty years of developmental limbo. The frenetic action thriller is a clone of better espionage-on-the-run storylines but with unparalleled technological revamping. Thanks to Lee’s devotion to shooting in 120 frames per second HFR 3D, the action scenes are more immersive than ever. Explosions engulf us in their devastation; close-quarters combat fights brush shoulders with us so severely that we can feel the bruising. Despite an anemic plot that barely treads water, “Gemini Man” is a prototype for more revolutionary event films to come.
Will Smith is movie star phenom whose onscreen vitality never ages, this time as Henry Brogan, an assassin on the edge of retirement. Unfortunately, he and the US government have two vastly different definitions of that term, the disagreement of which can literally mean life or death. Following the completion of his final kill, Brogan secludes himself to a quiet life on the docks of Georgia. Before he can settle into his post-career relaxation, a former colleague informs him that his recent target was a scientist working for the Americans, not a terrorist as the operation file claimed. This crucial tidbit alerts Brogan to his newfound status as a loose end. Before being paid a visit by his government executioners, Brogan blows the cover of Agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is tasked to keep tabs on him but joins Brogan’s fight after she learns of her agency’s dark intent.
Brogan, with the aid of Danny and resourceful friend Baron (Benedict Wong), quickly discovers that his past employers are colluding with GEMINI, a black-ops mercenary and weapons tech organization owned by Clay Verris (Clive Owen). Brogan and Baron were brothers in arms with Verris during their former military glory days. The two distanced themselves from Verris after his methodology of international upheaval leaned more towards profit and power than protection. Had they investigated his career advancements further, they would have learned GEMINI houses an experimental secret with steep consequences.
It’s during the film’s best action locale in Cartegena, Colombia that “Gemini Man’s” intrinsic duality presents itself head-on. Brogan comes face to face with a younger and faster (but less experienced) version of himself, whose sole purpose is self-eradication. The clone, Junior, is a remarkable effort of digital de-aging that will have audiences skipping a couple of breaths in awe. The facial mirroring gets distorted when framed in profile or shot in motion, but the close-ups offset this by maximizing the surreal emotion both characters experience as they lock eyes. Because of the technology’s infancy, Junior’s expressions still read more robotic than human. Thankfully, the wonderful reaction acting by Smith and Winstead draw out empathy for Junior’s robbed childhood.
Other than a memorable villain name, there’s little to Owen’s Clay Verris that you haven’t seen before. He’s your typical evil father-figure who exploits his surrogate son for his own devious plans under the guise of love. There is a last-minute twist that’s both heavy-handed and obvious, adding to the overriding sentiment that such a sparse story doesn’t need three screenwriters. David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke should have taken a backseat to Lee’s direction, which utilizes star magnitude as fuel but then coasts on lackluster plotting between the captivating gunfight sequences. Lee’s auteur sensibilities and visual ambition need to be trusted to the fullest extent, not sanitized out of fear that audiences can’t simply enjoy theme park-esque cinema.
“Gemini Man” has a better shot at both sound categories at the Oscars than visual effects, which will be overshadowed by Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and possibly “Captain Marvel.” It’s a joy to witness Smith reclaim his status as a riveting leading man. His dramatic chops and physicality impress as he invites the audience to join his survival mode anxiety. Moreover, Smith brings a more grounded, relatable energy to the espionage genre than the typical stiffness befitting a “Bond” or “Mission: Impossible” film. Even with stilted dialogue, Smith radiates dutiful passion without ever neutering the fun. Ang Lee took his time with this formulaic action crowdpleaser. Only time will tell whether this laborious duration paved room to keep the spectacle of movie theaters free from the threat of extinction.
“Gemini Man” is distributed by Paramount Pictures and hits theaters nationwide on Oct. 11.