Hollywood has a thing right now. Well, it might not even be “Hollywood.” It’s hard to point at exactly where it started, but for a while now, middle-aged actors are finding their way into fast-paced and gritty action roles. Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, Bruce Willis in the Diehard films, Denzel Washington in the Equalizer films, Liam Neeson in Taken, Ben Affleck in The Accountant, Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher, Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, and perhaps the pinnacle—the king of the pack—Keanu Reeves as the ineffable John Wick.
There is something about the story of the apex predator that has people hooked. No one goes to John Wick thinking they are going to see the titular hero get offed. They go because they know that they well get to watch an unstoppable force trounce a bunch of “highly-trained” operatives like my daughter standing over a bowl of cheese puffs. It’s an impressive, and terrifying, sight.
With that preamble, understanding the craving for characters (mostly men) that are highly skilled weapons themselves, enter Will Smith’s Henry in Gemini Man. A movie where the lethality of our protagonist is turned against them, literally. Henry is aging and getting ready to retire, who better to retire him than the younger version of himself?
Director Ang Lee is known for stylistically beautiful projects like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Life of Pi. Gemini Man has that beauty mixed into it. A few shots will catch you off guard. Wide establishing shots in the countryside, beach shots with the infinite ocean beyond, dark but accented camera angles in catacombs. If there is anything setting this movie apart from some of the others, it can be found in its reliance on visual effects.
I’m not going to lie, seeing a younger Will Smith next to present-day Will Smith is a sight to behold. In a few scenes the lighting and distance is just right, and for a moment you are actually convinced that they replicated Will Smith. He is great in every scene he is in, young or old. However, rather than using a double for the scenes where the younger Will Smith (they call him Junior) has his back turned, it seems they went forward with just using a digital avatar in a lot of places. In most cases, the assets they use are completely acceptable; most action scenes moved too fast for your eyes to parse the images perfectly. But when the camera slows down, gets too close, or there’s too much light present in the shot, it starts to fall apart pretty quickly.
At times I told myself that this imperfection was on purpose. After all, Junior is a facsimile of Henry. Maybe Ang Lee planned for Junior to not quite look right. But then there are a few scenes where I caught myself tripping so heavily over the animated avatar it took me completely out of the experience. Some fights over-utilize these tools as well. I am convinced a few of the fights are mostly digitally rendered.
It’s not that Gemini Man isn’t entertaining, instead it’s that it just isn’t really unique. Most of the movies I listed earlier in this piece have something unique about them. Bruce Willis is an ordinary Joe that turns into a badass in Diehard. Denzel Washington is getting older and is trying to correct that in his timing in the Equalizer. Ben Affleck’s character in The Accountant is on the spectrum. While Will Smith’s character in Gemini Man is dealing with his age, sure, but that point is only brought up once or twice in the movies first 30 minutes. After that you rarely think about it again, despite watching a man get pummeled by the younger version of himself.
It’s hard to talk about how the story of this movie plays out without spoiling very specific things. Honestly, once you see the trailer and understand the gimmick of the movie, there’s not much you can talk about without getting into plot specific details. Clive Owen (Children of Men) is menacing and deceitful, but often his character’s numb stare comes across as him actually zoning out. But that aside, the supporting efforts from him, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane), and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange), are all perfectly adequate. There isn’t a performance in here that will be up for an Oscar, no, but then would that take away from this subgenre of films? We don’t go to movies like this to be moved by a performance. We want to see someone perforate a few dozen enemy combatants.
Truthfully, the longer these movies get made, the more I see through the veneer. If John Wick would have more than two people shoot at him at the same time, he wouldn’t live to the end of the movie. If there wasn’t some kind of inherent bad guy ineptitude, most of these heroes would die. In fact, relatively early in Gemini Man, there’s a moment where Will Smith’s Henry shoots three soldiers, with a silenced rifle, while a sniper is watching the doorway he does it in. Somehow that sniper doesn’t see him. I still don’t know why not.
There is this concept in media called Inverse Ninja Law. The law is detailed as follows: The inverse ninja law is a media trope regarding not only ninjas, but any character type that is shown to attack in massed numbers, such as soldiers, robots, daleks, or vampires (but not zombies). It states that the threat level of any number of ninjas or other whatsits is inversely proportionate to their numbers. (i.e. the more there are, the worse they are).
Gemini Man is this concept illustrated. When it is Will vs. Will, the fight is tense and entertaining. When it is Will vs. The Masses, the fight is fast and cheap. The addition of an equal nemesis, something most movies of this type try to have in very limited form, makes their face-offs far more interesting than when Henry needs to mow down a few grunts. And then you notice that most of the fight you are watching feels too rubbery. It really is a shame that such an accomplished director with a movie like Crouching Tiger under his belt supplanted actual stunts and trained professional stuntmen with so much digitally assisted fluff.
Here is my dilemma. Gemini Man isn’t a movie for the ages. Honestly, I don’t even think it breaks the top five list of similar films. The plot that does exist is hastily delivered, often unexplored, and any weight the movie tries to deliver seems to fall through a soggy cardboard box of a narrative. That doesn’t change the fact that I had fun watching the scenes of this movie unfurl. It’s a popcorn movie, which I’m fully aware may not have been Lee’s directorial intention. Maybe it was. Either way, Gemini Man was fun to watch. It’s not every day you get to see the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with muscles” take on “Deadshot.”
I’m just nerdy enough to love that. | Caleb Sawyer