Skip to main content

It’s not every day you see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents – by himself.

Gemini Man
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Ang Lee seems hellbent on sloughing down a technological cul-de-sac to the point of creative obscurity, in much the same way Robert Zemeckis enmired himself in the mirage of motion capture for a decade. Lee previously experimented with higher frame rates on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, to the general aversion of those who saw it in its intended form – 48, 60 or 120 fps have generally gone down like a bag of cold sick, just ask Peter Jackson – and the complete indifference of most of the remaining audience, for whom the material held little lustre. Now he pretty much repeats that trick with Gemini Man. At best, it’s merely an “okay” film – not quite the bomb its Rotten Tomatoes score suggests – which, (as I saw it) stripped of its distracting frame rate and 3D, reveals itself as just about serviceable but afflicted by several insurmountable drawbacks.

I remember Gemini Man’s first announcement back in the ‘90s, when Tony Scott was involved (back in the days of Samsonite Warhead – maybe that will get resuscitated next?) I liked the basic concept, even if I’d rather have seen a big screen version of Ben Murphy with his (in)visibility watch. The problem, however, is that once you get past the flashy premise, what are you going to do with it? Particularly if the flashiest part of the premise – an aging star made youthful – is entirely squandered by dodgy casting and iffy effects.

Everyone has pointed this out from the first announcement, but a young version of a fifty-year-old who could easily pass for thirty-five is as redundant as attempting to achieve that effect by – rather than de-aging tech that has been quite decent in the MCU, with the likes of Michael Douglas and Sam Jackson – creating a virtual double of the lead, one who moves and expresses himself unflatteringly like a video game facsimile of said star. It isn’t that young Will Smith doesn’t look like Fresh Prince era Smith; I twig the intent behind making him a younger version of Henry Brogan, Smith’s character. It’s that Junior suffers all the issues preventing one from believing in him as a real person that have dogged such attempts historically (the dead eyes, the not-quite-interacting facial expressions – I kept thinking of Arnie’s model head in Total Recall – the action sequences where he just moves too damn fast).

Even all that aside, and you’re back with the gimmick. When it was the idea of an Air Force One Harrison Ford versus his American Graffiti self, or better still (given that, in contrast to Smith, he’d aged considerably in only about fifteen years) a Conspiracy Theory Mel Gibson versus his Mad Max 2 incarnation, there was cachet there (best of all would have been a Fistful of Dollars Clint Eastwood versus an Unforgiven Clint Eastwood). What would that be like? With Smith, you instantly pull the rug from under the major selling point. It does, however, figure as these things go; his attempts to flex his movie star muscles have been incredibly mixed of late. He’s proved people still want to see him, but that’s in spite of resolutely mediocre material.

Moving past the star/part mismatch, what do you do with the old hit man versus his younger self idea that Looper hasn’t already? Looper didn’t really fulfil its potential for me, floundering with its muddled time-travel conception and stalling in respect of the direction it took the drama, but it did make a decent stab at delivering two versions of the same character, thirty-odd years apart. The problem Gemini Man faces is that Junior is fundamentally uninteresting, even beyond the visual rendering that saps Smith’s buttoned-down performance of any charisma.

As older Henry, Smith brings his natural charm and is easily able to fill in the less than sketchy character. Which means the first forty minutes or so, before Junior is introduced as a person in his own right, offer an engaging on-the-run conspiracy thriller, Smith delivering a more capable (“Who couldn’t kill a man on a train from two kilometres away?”) version of his Enemy of the State target for termination. Owen’s character comments of the efficacy of the teams dispatched to kill Smith “It’s like watching the Hindenberg crash into the Titanic”, but that might better apply to the plot choices after they’re out of the picture.

If the writers – (the screenplay is credited to David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke, but many others also took a stab at it across two decades, including Andrew Niccol, Brian Helgeland and Jonathan Hensleigh, making it all the more curious that it’s so bereft of polish or plot coherence) had stuck with this, of an unstoppable Terminator-like assassin out to off Smith, Gemini Man might have sustained itself. There’s some engaging action in the first half, not least a motorbike pursuit that has an immediacy of impact despite the virtual double elements, so Lee is clearly no slouch in that department.

Unfortunately, the decision was made to build Junior as a sympathetic character in his own right. In what seems like no time at all, he’s been persuaded to forsake “dad” (Clive Owen, continuing to evidence that, on the big screen at least, he’s being fed scraps and impressing no one with them). It might have worked better if they’d gone for the nurture rather than nature angle and had him remain a steely-eyed psycho and not revealed as an inherently good guy. It certainly would have made the latter half of the picture what it really needed to be; relentless and pulse-pounding. Instead, it rather sags, and features knuckle-headed gaps in credibility; Will and co keep wondering how it is that Junior shows up wherever he goes, failing even to consider that he might have had a tracking chip implanted unbeknownst. A second clone is introduced very late on, who is a bad Junior, having had his emotions redacted, but the impact of this is very limited (I rather hoped he’d be revealed as a young Owen, which would at least have been something different).

Another plotting issue is the abysmal resolution. In the early stages, the straightforward 90s-ish (funny, that) approach to the storytelling is quite refreshingly old school, but the decision to wrap everything in a bow – Dani (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) gets her job back, dead dad Clive was just one bad apple (honest!), the cloning programme is shut down (honest!) there are no more clones (honest!), Junior is allowed to lead a normal life like any average stone-cold killer clone would (yeah, right), and Henry’s able to sleep again (because all those deaths – “Seventy-two kills, Del. That shit starts to mess with you after a bit” – no longer play on his mind, not now he’s killed the guy he blames for his being a killer). Good grief.

Gemini Man suggests Henry was cloned the year before Dolly the Sheep was announced, which is most likely giving too much benefit of the doubt to the (conspiracy) theory that any advances in science will only filter into the public consciousness at best a decade or two after they have been actualised. Certainly, if the tales of underground bases of cloned celebrity fight clubs are anything to go by (which come complete with their own logic for the production not being able to utilise a younger Will Smith clone).

Winstead, like Smith, is able to lend a degree of personality to an empty shell of a role, although she also fares better before Junior impresses himself upon the proceedings. Benedict Wong is good value as the rumpled sidekick, until he gets unceremoniously and unnecessarily blown up. Douglas Hodge and Ralph Brown also provide much needed sparks of life in supporting roles.

The biggest takeaway from Gemini Man isn’t so much its averageness as incredulity that Paramount were willing to compound their woes – albeit, all the major studios aside from Disney have similar woes, most due to Disney, but Paramount’s had a particular stinker of a year – by throwing $150m down the toilet on a movie sporting tech they had to know no one was keen on and headlining a star with an extremely spotty record of late. Their slate has few guarantees over the next year – one might want to bet on Top Gun: Maverick and Coming 2 America, but thirty-years-later sequels are never going to be sure things, while A Quite Place: Part II was definitely not asking for a follow up – and includes the already ridiculed Sonic the Hedgehog. Anyone willing to finance another Lee frame-rate experiment would have to have rocks in their head. Which leaves Smith relatively unscathed… At least, until Bad Boys for Life does or doesn’t garner an audience for Sony.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.