With Gemini Man, Ang Lee cements his place among A-list directors whose fixations on technological advancements have eclipsed their instincts for quality storytelling. Filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and James Cameron have all, to varying degrees, let their drives for innovation in moviemaking take precedence over narrative and character development. The more resources they’re given, the more they devote those resources to new technologies that tend to be detrimental to the story they’re trying to tell. Lee first experimented with shooting in 3D at a high frame rate (120 frames per second, rather than the standard 24) with his 2016 drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and he returns to that approach for Gemini Man, a sci-fi action movie that at least seems more suited to the high-tech treatment.
Lee’s method of shooting is so cutting-edge that almost no theater in the U.S. is equipped to show Gemini Man in the way it’s intended, and at the screening I attended, the movie was projected in 2D at a standard frame rate. The picture quality isn’t Gemini Man’s only technological leap forward, though, and the movie has garnered much more attention for its use of de-aging effects in creating a 30-years-younger version of star Will Smith, who plays world-weary government assassin Henry Brogan as well as his much younger clone, known as Junior. Junior has been raised from birth by cold, megalomaniacal security consultant Clay Varris (Clive Owen), whose company Gemini offers the kind of illegal clandestine services that governments and corporations can’t undertake themselves. Gemini’s latest secret project is an effort to provide perfect killing machines to the military via cloning.
When Henry discovers classified information about a man he was sent to kill, his agency marks him for termination, and Varris takes control, sending Junior to kill the man responsible for his entire existence. It’s a goofy high concept that plays out in a predictable, cheesy fashion, with some painfully awkward dialogue and paper-thin characters, including Henry’s old military buddy Baron (Benedict Wong) and young American operative Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who becomes Henry’s default partner. Varriss is a generic sneering villain, and Henry, despite being literally confronted with his own mortality, is just an action hero on autopilot. Based on a script that has been in various stages of development for more than 20 years, Gemini Man feels like the relic it is, given excessive polish that can’t hide the clumsy writing and tired premise.
Lee has worked intermittently in action movies (including the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), albeit nothing quite on this level, and he stages one very good action sequence, a motorcycle chase during the first meeting between Henry and Junior in Colombia, but otherwise the action is forgettable. Even viewed without the proper enhancements, the visuals still look too bright and clear, like standing next to the actors on set rather than glimpsing a heightened reality. Lee favors close-ups that put the camera uncomfortably close to the actors’ faces, which is especially jarring for the digitally created Junior. He even throws in a few very obvious things-thrusting-at-the-camera 3D moments, making the movie feel even more like a gimmicky, feature-length demo for shaky new technology.
A lot of time, effort and money went into creating Junior, though, and he often looks impressive, even if he’s never not distracting. The story aims to compete with the Jason Bourne or Mission: Impossible franchises, but comes closer to those ’90s action movies featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme acting opposite himself. Lee has invested all of his artistic energy into material that’s consistently beneath his talents, just for the sake of showing off his shiny new toys.