Notes: Films are usually shot with cameras that capture images at 24 frames per second (fps). Gemini Man has been shot in 120 frames per second and is screening in digital 3D showings presenting it in 48 frames per second. This review covers a 3D 48 fps screening.
With Gemini Man, you’ll be seeing double with four, er, two Will Smith’s. How did this happen? Well, it all started when Henry Brogan (Will Smith), a cool as a cucumber experienced assassin, decides to retire. Per Brogan, his job is giving him moral heebie-jeebies, he can’t sleep or even look at a mirror. Time to hang up the gun and maybe engage in a research project on what exactly Collateral Beauty really is. But suddenly, armed assassins break into his house one night to try and kill Brogan and Dani Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the latter person being a lady previously tasked with tracking Brogran in his retirement. The people Brogan worked for now see this retired-spy as a loose end in need of getting cut and the person tasked with taking him out is a 23-year-old clone of Brogan named Junior.
Much like the humans in the Star Wars prequels or the character played by Jesse Plemons on Breaking Bad, Gemini Man is a movie that seems to know how humans are supposed to act, but can never replicate that behavior organically. It always feels a touch off, a touch detached to a distracting degree. Is it just the way the actors have been directed, is it the stale attempts at humor (Nat Geo and Chuck E. Cheese name-drops FTW), is it the dialogue? It’s hard to pinpoint it to just one element, but it certainly can’t be chalked up to the lead performance. Immensely charismatic actor Will Smith is doing his best to try and inject humanity into the proceedings, ditto for Benedict Wong in an amusing but disposable supporting turn as Brogan’s best buddy.
Such noble efforts from Smith and Wong can’t overcome a movie way too in love with characters delivering rigid dramatic monologues captured through unimaginative blocking and lazy camerawork. Anytime characters are just having conversations in Gemini Man, it’s like the people behind the camera have decided to fall asleep behind the camera. That right there is the most frustrating part of Gemini Man, it’s a movie drooling over its innovative 3D and 120 fps technology yet the film itself is so darn derivative. A scene where the female lead is forced to strip down to her underwear? You got it, unfortunately. Predictable character arcs? Also here. A tediously obvious baddie? It’s here. Junior isn’t the only thing in Gemini Man clearly imitating previously existing entities.
Despite so clearly hewing to 1990’s Jerry Bruckheimer action films, Gemini Man is way too composed and wooden to truly recapture the nuttiness of those movies. Those features were super predictable and derivative too, no question, but they mitigated that by throwing out all kinds of weirdness at the viewer, like Bruce Willis choking out William Fichtner with a gigantic wrench, Nicolas Cage doing Nicolas Cage things or that hysterically terrible erotic animal crackers scene. Yes, Gemini Man’s lifeless disposition frequently becomes so tedious that you’re left yearning for Michael Bay’s atrocious attempts to do heartwarming romance. Credit where credit is due, though, the movie does has a handful of moments that do channel this kind of gusto spirit that do point towards a far more fun movie.
A bit where Brogan does the world’s most dramatic push-up in slow-motion to avoid being hit with a motorcycle had me cackling in glee while a moment involving Junior using bee venom to figure out if he’s really a clone of Brogan is the kind of fun nonsense that would have made The Rock proud. To boot, pieces of the dialogue does frequently effectively echo the over-the-top nature of those Bruckheimer movies. “It’s not gun time, it’s coffee time” is a particularly fun line I’ll be quoting for a good long while. Why couldn’t these glimpses into actual fun have been the norm rather than the exception for Gemini Man? Even the actions sequences only have bits and pieces of excitement, like so much of the movie, they’re frequently held back by a sense of rigidness that just sucks the fun out of the room. At least there’s some nifty camerawork and stunt work in an early motorcycle chase scene.
It’s worth mentioning that easily the best part of the production is the digital effects used for the character of Junior. As someone whose been heavily critical of Hollywood’s attempts to use CGI to de-age famous movie stars, I was thoroughly impressed with the all-digital creation that is Junior. Aside from some moments where the character is standing around in bright sunlight, Junior actually looks believable as a person and it’s shocking how convincing he is in interacting with other live-action characters in the movie. In these exchanges, Junior becomes just another character rather than a piece of CGI wizardry. Good work too on Will Smith for the tiny ways he modulates his voice to sound younger for this character while I’m grateful that director Ang Lee opted to not digitally modify Junior’s voice or at least did so in unnoticeable ways. Overly altered voices can make it hard to connect with these all-CGI characters (see: the Orc’s in Warcraft, who all sounded the same) and Smith’s voicework here ensures that the groundbreaking CGI work on Junior doesn’t get upended.
As for the rest of the movies effects work, well, let’s talk about the high frame rate the film is shot in. It works best in scenes that are either underwater or in sequences shot from a first-person perspective. A flashback to young Brogan learning how to swim from his stern father, told through adolescent Brogan’s eyes, is especially enhanced through being presented in 48 fps, you feel like you’re actually right there in the scene. Otherwise, the 48 fps proves to be more of a distraction than anything else. As writer Britt Hayes recently pointed out so succinctly, 48 fps just makes movies look too much like motion smoothing for my eyeballs, the way characters keep moving around at a slightly rapid fashion proves to be thoroughly distracting more often than not.
Instead of making you feel like you’re in the world of the movie, Gemini Man’s 48 fps frequently just takes you out of the movie. I do enjoy how director Ang Lee isn’t above using 3D for fun pop-out-of-the-screen moments that see glass, popcorn and other objects hurling towards the viewer, but it only provides momentary enjoyment rather than enhancing the film on a profound level. Admittedly, the 3D tech is facing a massive uphill battle here considering that Gemini Man’s script is neither fun enough to just work as an action movie nor engaging enough on a dramatic level to work as a more character-driven drama. That right there is the biggest problem of Gemini Man and it handicaps the movies fleeting moments of fun as well as the ambitions of talented individuals working for the project like Ang Lee and Will Smith. All of that talent and ambition, sadly, result in an exercise in utilizing immersive technology on a story about as cold and sterile as a doctor’s waiting room.