Gemini Man Review: Will Smith Movie Better Off Left in Past
Will Smith faces his younger self in Gemini Man, but it is a literal '90s high-concept that's dead-on-arrival in this high frame rate mess.
While watching Gemini Man, I was taken back to the ‘90s, although not necessarily for the reasons you think. Sure, the movie stars one of that decade’s biggest names, and it’s definitely based on a relic from a pitch meeting of that era, but the real nostalgia here is for the point-and-click puzzlers it so eerily resembles with its deadly photography.
If you’re too young to have been blessed with classics like The 7th Guest or Tim Curry’s Frankenstein game, back in the day they hired Hollywood talent to act before blue screens that would be filled out with digital photographs of real sets. The characters were real, their conversations had conviction, but they were doomed by uncanny valley visuals and stilted presentation. Gemini Man is similarly haunted by director Ang Lee’s continually baffling choice to shoot movies in 120 frames per second. Over-lighting every set to compensate for the tactless visuals, the movie is disturbingly unreal whenever Will Smith stares into the camera to spout exposition. And that’s before they digitally de-age him.
A perfect time capsule of lousy elevator pitches of yore, Gemini Man is about that one assassin with a heart of gold and a face of box office bankability. Here he’s Smith as Henry Brogan, the old pro hitman for the government who wants to retire after One More Job™. He miraculously succeeds at that assignment, shooting a man on a moving train from two kilometers away without hitting the cute kid one seat over.
Alas, it was setup. The “DIA” (inexplicably not CIA) has betrayed him and has been doing so for 23 years, starting when mad military scientist Clay Verris (Clive Owen) cloned Henry. Now that Henry’s killed an allegedly innocent man, Clay can send Henry’s well-nurtured, 23-year-old clone, Junior (Smith with his Fresh Prince baby face), after him. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is also present in a wasted role as Smith’s partner/not-quite-love-interest. Any time it drifts close toward romance, Smith reluctantly reminds her and audiences that he’s 51. Uh-huh.
Even more than Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Gemini Man is an inexplicable eyesore of excessive frame rates, unintentionally resembling ancient software during its dialogue scenes. However, the effect is enhanced here due to the inclusion of 3D action sequences. With the high frame count essentially speeding up motion so fight scenes appear like someone’s struggling with the fast forward button, the many bouts of fisticuffs are jerky and comical, while some of the daytime chases resemble low-grade video reels of extreme sports, also from the ‘90s.
This is a shame because several of the action sequences are actually shot with dynamic motion by Lee. Excitingly paced and beautifully composed, one motorbike chase through the streets of Colombia would be particularly kinetic if not for the fact it aesthetically looks like those VHS tapes that used to come with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Additionally, the movie can never thread the needle between its dour tone and nonsensical storyline, creating weird flourishes like Baby Will Smith literally slapping Old Man Will Smith with the wheel of a speeding motorbike… and it only leaving a small scratch.
The ugliness of the visuals, however, should not shield the awful screenplay. With contributions from the likes of David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Billy Ray (The Hunger Games), and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps), Gemini Man is filled with audible duds like Smith saying with a straight face to Winstead’s startled-from-bed secret agent, “Not gun time, coffee time.” Twice. The irony is this project has been floating through Hollywood over 20 years and previously has seen the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, and Clint Eastwood all consider playing the man who is both old and young (presumably with prosthetic makeup back then). With the exception of Ford, Smith is a much better actor than any of them, and yet one could imagine this movie working marginally better with each of those talents who could lean into the absurdity.
Smith, a gifted actor who has struggled with the baggage of his name being a brand for 25 years, has grown somewhat wary of the “King of Summer” persona he used to comfortably inhabit. After The Pursuit of Happyness, the infectious joy he wore as snugly as a dark suit in his blockbusters vanished, and he’s tried to bring the same earnest weight to pictures like Hancock and After Earth that he would to Ali or Concussion. That is deadly in a movie as silly as Gemini Man, which might have benefited greatly if I Am Legend Smith went head-to-head against the younger persona that once smirked to an unconscious alien, “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”
Despite lip service about mortality, and the young and old men coming to blows in a literal tomb beneath Budapest, this is a wacky premise that would’ve been best realized in the ‘90s if it starred Nicolas Cage. Yet Smith and Lee try to play it straight, even with a screenplay as lazy and hackneyed as this collection of clichés. As a consequence, the film is ultimately reduced to a showcase for the interests of its brilliant director: a technical experiment with new technology. And if that’s the case, it’s regrettable to report that these high-frame rate images need to go back to formula.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.