Wednesday, October 9, 2019

'Gemini Man' (2019) Movie Review

It’s going to be weird to talk about Gemini Man, Ang Lee’s new Old-Will-Smith-versus-Young-Will-Smith action movie. Not because of the plot or acting or story or any of the usual suspects—though there is, as always, much to discus in those arenas—but because of the technology used to make it. By its very nature, this is going to create multiple different viewing experiences, even more so than the usual 3D, IMAX, etc. format choices, and potentially have more of an impact.

Much has been made of the fact that Lee filmed Gemini Man at an abnormally high frame rate: 120fps. For reference, the first Hobbit movie was 48fps, with 24fps as the industry standard. But how you see it will depend a great deal on where you live. Intended to show at 120fps, in 3D, and projected in 4k, there are literally no theaters in the U.S. with that capability. In fact, there are only 14 that get close—they’ll show the film in 3D at 120fps, but only in 2K. Others have various combinations—4K but no high frame rate or 3D; 3D and 4K, but only 60fps; and so on.

The screening I saw was in 2D, projected at a normal frame rate, so that’s how I plan to discuss the film. Various other folks around the country have seen various other iterations. I’ve heard a grab bag of reactions, from those who love the HFR to those who compare it to the motion smoothing on an HD TV, which is my issue with the few things I’ve seen in HFR.

But with all the bells and whistles, the tech still serves to prop up the movie and in that regard, Gemini Man is a mixed bag. Ultimately, it feels more like a demo reel to show to show investors than a movie that cares about character or narrative. It never truly escapes it’s Bourne knock-off script, but that’s not to say it’s without merit. It’s a perfectly serviceable airport dad novel of a movie. Fun and distracting, it keeps your attention for the duration of your flight then you never have to think of it again.

Ang Lee has always been a tech head, enamored with the next gadget or gizmo—he makes excellent use of 3D technology in Life of Pi, for example. But he can also stage, shoot, and direct the living hell out of action. And the action in Gemini Man is crisp, clear, and precise in a way that plays effortless and natural, but that so many movies whiff on. One epic chase sequence in Columbia stands out as particularly thrilling. When the focus stays on the action, that’s when the movie works best. When it looks elsewhere, it runs into problems. 

Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, the best assassin the world has ever known. But he’s getting old and wants to retire. If you’ve ever seen a movie, you know that never goes well. Teaming up with Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young government agent sent to keep tabs on him, and Baron (Benedict Wong), an old military buddy, Henry traipses the world trying to figure out why Clayton Verris (Clive Owen) wants him dead. All the while, a deadly assassin trails them, trying to AMF our hero. The twist is, shocker, Junior, as he’s known, is a younger version of Henry. OMG, it’s a clone! (Don’t worry, not a spoiler. It’s in every trailer, on every poster, and in fact the very basis of the entire marketing platform.)

For a movie that doesn’t particularly care about character, motivation, and all the rest, it’s still relatively engaging thanks to the cast. Smith has a damn good time and, though he’s older and more grizzled, this is a natural progression from the roles that originally made him a huge star. His charisma and charm shine through and he’s engaged in a way he hasn’t been in a long time. It’s nice to see and be reminded why the world loves Big Willy Style.

Winstead doesn’t have a ton to do, mostly filling the expository sidekick role—and thankfully she’s not a love interest for the much older Smith. Still, she gives Danny an allure and texture the script doesn’t. It’s Baron who steals the show, however, as Wong hams up every scene—think of him as Rick and TC from Magnum P.I. and that gives you a good idea of his function.

While none of the characters are super nuanced or particularly deep or interesting, the main trio has strong chemistry and warm, earnest bond that carries the story. It’s weird to think that Gemini Man has been bouncing around for more than 20 years—it first surfaced in 1997 with Tony Scott attached to direct and has gone through countless directors, stars, and renderings over the years. And you have to ask what took so long? 

Obviously, the filmmakers needed technology to catch up with the script. It’s an intriguing idea, but it never amounts to anything that a modest conspiracy thriller. The duality serves as a vehicle for empty philosophical and moral platitudes—Who am I? What makes me who I am? And other freshman year, introto philosophy touchstones. They’re not uninteresting questions, and perfect sci-fi fodder, they’re simply not explored in any meaningful, insightful way. And they don’t even attempt to get into the ethics of cloning.

And the technology used to execute the double Will Smiths is, like the surrounding film, hit and miss. Young Will Smith is not de-aged, as we’ll see later this year in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. He’s reportedly a 100% CGI construction. And that often shows. When he’s moving, lit the right way, or in a frame with enough going on to distract the eye, it’s passable. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are moments in action scenes where Junior flips around and looks like a video game cut scene—something about his movement is just a bit off from real, a frequent issue I have with big, FX-laden action movies. 

Then there’s a middle ground, shots where he’s talking and the camera lingers on his face like any other character. In these moments it’s almost there. But there’s still something off. It’s too perfect, too authentic, like it goes past photoreal to some other inexplicable thing. It’s impossible to shake the feeling of the uncanny—it looks real to the eye but not quite to the brain—and it’s best not to examine it too closely. (Then there’s the final scene, which is atrocious and feels like they ran out of time to finish the effects.) 

Again, I have to wonder how the delivery mechanism impacts this. According to Lee, the lighting, the HFR, and the way they filmed the movie are the reasons they went the CGI route instead of instead of using other techniques. This leaves us curious about how it appears when displayed as intended. Maybe it works projected as Lee envisioned. Thanks to theatrical limitations, most of us may never know.

The biggest question I have after watching Gemini Man is why choose this vehicle for this technological jump? It makes a certain amount of sense with a project like Avatar, where you create a whole new world. But without the blips and beeps, this is a straightforward ‘90s style action movie. (Van Damme did the double thing multiple times that decade alone.) Did Ang Lee just want to use a new toy? More than anything, that’s the impression it leaves, of a filmmaker playing with new technology, seeing what it can do. It’s fun enough, modestly engaging, and might remind a few people why we love the Fresh Prince, but it’s an odd choice and a strange artifact. [Grade: B-]

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