A film review by Craig J. Koban October 20, 2019


2019, PG-13, 117 mins.


Will Smith as Henry Brogen  /  Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Danny  /  Clive Owen as Clay Verris  /  Benedict Wong as Baron  /  Linda Emond as Lassiter  /  Theodora Miranne as Kitty  /  Justin James Boykin as Connor  /  Alexandra Szucs as Aniko

Directed by Ang Lee  /  Written by David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke

3D HFR 60fps

Ang Lee's GEMINI MAN is a new sci-fi espionage thriller of some strange contradictions.  

It represents a pretty astounding leap forward in the area of photo-realistic CGI, but at the same time it contains regressive minded, paint-by-numbers scripting that feels like the product of something that should have been released decades ago (the screenplay itself has laid dormant for years, with many a filmmaker trying to take on the material, but backing away when the VFX technology required for it wasn't up to snuff).  The basic premise for GEMINI MAN is an intriguing, if not somewhat derivative one (what if a middle aged assassin was hunted down by a twenty-something clone of himself, which movies like LOOPER have sort of already dabbled with), and Lee employs some truly watershed effects to bring this story to life alongside crafting some utterly absurd, but thoroughly sensational action sequences.  If only the storytelling was as fresh as the craft that went into this film, then we'd really have a truly memorable and transcending genre offering. 

GEMINI MAN contains so many bloody compelling ideas, especially in its tale of a roughed, rugged, and world weary government agent that's forced against his will to go mano-a-mano against a young version of himself, genetically created by the same government that gave him his livelihood.  Cloning has been the stuff of science fiction for years, to be sure, but Lee's film at least poses some intriguing questions about the nature of humanity and what constitutes individuality and a soul, but the screenplay here by David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke never seems equal to the task of rendering this material as thoughtfully as they perhaps wants.  More often than not, GEMINI MAN comes off more as a proof of concept demo reel for its VFX and camera choices (more on the latter in a bit) than a truly captivating and richly scripted sci-fi yarn.  The visual and technical wow factor of Lee's film is exceedingly high at times (if anything, the Oscar winning Taiwanese director has never shied away from any genre or genre challenge), but the narrative drives of the piece are decidedly ho-hum. 

The eternally young looking Will Smith plays 51-year-old Henry Brogan here, a top government agent that is usually hired for hits that require his unique stealthy skill set (demonstrated in the opening sections of the film, showcasing him snipe his prey while he's on a high speed moving train from a mile away).  After amassing an insanely high kill count over the years, Henry decides to call it quits so that he can retire to some semblance of normalcy with his sanity mostly in check.  His former mentor/boss in Clay Verris (a snarling and scenery chewing Clive Owen) believes that his ex-protégée is a scary liability, so he conspires with other higher ups in Black Ops to "retire" Henry into a casket.  Henry is able to spot one undercover agent early on in Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but soon it becomes clear that both of their lives are in extreme danger, forcing them both on the run.  Complicating things immensely is the startling discovery that one operative in particular that's perusing them is just as good as Henry in the field...but only because he is Henry, at least a three decades younger clone of him that's been raised and trained by Clay.   




Smith has one of the most recognizable mugs in the industry, and one that has literally spanned twenty-plus years.  Most are familiar with how the star looked in decades past compared to now, leaving the visual effects magicians at Weta Digital in a unique, yet incredibly challenging position to create a satisfyingly authentic looking young Smith doppelganger for his current self to lock horns with.  GEMINI MAN is certainly not the very first film to feature a prominent lead actor to undergo digital de-aging, but Lee and Weta are doing something more ambitious and unprecedented here.  Utilizing similar motion capture technology featured in AVATAR and the recent PLANET OF THE APES reboot films, young cloned Smith (at least from the head up) is completely computer generated as opposed to taking the actor's face and giving it a digital facelift.  The end results are, at times, astonishing and represent a new benchmark for how synthetic humans will be created moving forward in cinema.  That's not to say that there isn't any rough patches here and there (some shots in broad daylight give the effect totally away), but there remains a handful of jaw-dropping moments when the faux Smith looks eerily real.  This is the best a fully computer generated human face has ever look in a mainstream film.   

Then there's the very challenge of having scenes with both Smiths facing off against one another, and all without the effects drawing too much distracting scrutiny, and Lee has mostly pulled it off resoundingly well here.  One of the more bravura action sequences in GEMINI MAN occurs early on with a foot and motorcycle chase through crowded Cartagena streets that has to be seen to be believed.  It culminates with baby faced Henry using his motorcycle as an extended martial arts appendage in ways that would make Jackie Chan blush with envy (it's like kung fu, but with motorcycles).  This is followed by a pretty mesmerizing fist fight between Henry and his clone in a dark catacomb where Lee doesn't shy away at all from employing tight close-ups to show off, yes, that the real Smith is indeed mashing his face up against his artificially concocted double.  There's something liberating about witnessing Lee use technology in new ways to craft scenes that would otherwise be engineered with two different actors as ring partners.  The uncanny valley effect (that obtrusive conceit that makes it hard for viewers to buy into humanoid digital creations) has certainly been narrowed in this film. 

But speaking of distracting technology, Lee has decided to shoot GEMINI MAN not only in 4K, but also in 3D and at 120 frames per second, which is the second film on his resume after BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK to use such methods.  For nearly 100 years movies have been presented at 24 fps, which essentially means that Lee is shooting his films that end up requiring about 40 times more data being captured and later processed.  That, and the images are projected at a five times higher frame rate than just about any film you've ever seen (that basically means nearly everything in the frame is in sharp focus and that motion blurring of anything is non-existent).  Here's the problem, though: There is no cinema in the U.S. capable of presenting GEMINI MAN as Lee intended - 4K, 3D, and 120 fps - and there exists only 14 cinemas in the same nation capable of 2K, 2D, and 120 fps showings.  I guess this brings up one logical question: Why would Lee continue to obsessively and aggressively commit to shooting films this way if 99% of cinemas in North America have no manner of projecting them to his specifications for the filmgoing masses?  

Here's the other thing: A lot of people loathe the look of films shot this way (at least the few that have seen it at 120 fps).  My screening here in Saskatoon was at a compromised 2K, 3D, and 60 fps, and I have a few takeaways: (1) This was arguably the best implementation of 3D I've ever seen in a cinema (which arguably has much to do with the higher frame rate, leaving a brighter image and less strobing), and (2) I have never seem movie images as sharp, bright, crisp, and clean as what I saw in this film.  But these same images rarely felt, well, cinematic at all and lacked the grit and texture of films shot at normal frame rates.  Still, I don't think that HFR movies are something to automatically dismiss (as most critics are hostilely doing).  During some moments in GEMINI MAN the HFR effect didn't totally diminish my viewing experience, but there were many more times when the sterile looking imagery was aesthetically displeasing to the eye.  I would chime in to say that I'd like to see this HFR tech evolve (James Cameron is reportedly preaching its virtues for the unreleased AVATAR sequels), but as for this fundamentally altering the landscape of movies forever...cinephiles shouldn't have anything to worry about.  


I guess that I'm in the minority for thinking that GEMINI MAN is nowhere near the qualitative trainwreck that many critics have let on.  Lee's film features a tremendous amount of untamed creative ambition, and the VFX used to credibly replicate a fully simulated version of a Fresh Prince era Smith are thanklessly on point.  And Smith himself is quite good in a tricky dual role that could have been disastrously mishandled by the wrong performance choices (he's also matched nicely by Winstead, who's commendably never delegated to damsel in distress mode).  It's just a shame, though, that the screenplay here is just on assassin genre autopilot, leaving a potentially though provoking sci-fi/thriller hybrid truly bereft of engaging thematic commentary.  GEMINI MAN is as high concept as they come, and the imagery and action on display certainly deserve big screen consumption (which results in my diplomatic 2.5 star rating: it deserves to be seen, albeit with some obvious caveats and reservations).  Lee's film is an unqualified next-gen effects marvel that legitimately astounds the senses, but its scripting lazily falls back on old troupes and formulas.  It's exciting, if not a bit frightening, to consider what Lee could do with these newfangled cinematic tools when given the right screenplay vehicle that matches the filmmaker's technical innovation.        

  H O M E