‘Gemini Man’: Ang Lee Crafts a Kinetic Cinematic Experiment
On the surface, “Gemini Man” may seem like a recycled ‘90s style action-thriller that was grown in a Hollywood screenplay lab. However, Will Smith’s latest starring vehicle is directed by none other than two-time Academy Award winner Ang Lee, one of the most meticulous visual artists in all of world cinema. The overarching story may be nothing new, but Lee manages to take a script that’s old and hollow and make it wholly his own, injecting what should by no means be a unique vision with a heightened sense of hyperreality and kinetic warmth.
Intended to be seen in IMAX 3D, “Gemini Man” was shot at 120 frames per second — which makes the movie look like the motion smoothing setting is cranked all the way up on your TV — and, believe it or not, the effect actually works. Aesthetic immersion is Lee’s entire goal here. Those looking for an original story might as well stay home, as placing the audience inside an almost other-worldly experience appears to be Lee’s priority. The seasoned filmmaker almost seems to be parodying the expected tropes by merely going through the motions, acknowledging them through a text of passing regret with woefully wooden dialog. What he’s done is shape a sensitive spy movie with a moral conscience, which is virtually an oxymoron.
“Gemini Man’s” cold open drops the audience in the middle of an intense operation, as we witness professional killer, Harry Brogan (Smith) in action. Harry is so good at what he does that he can snipe a target on a moving train from over 200 km away. But, after 22 kills, any assassin’s ethical compass might start getting the better of them. Harry learns that he may have shot an innocent man on his last job, resolving to hang up his rifle. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Harry has killed virtually the same amount of people as the number of James Bond films that have been produced. “You see, the history might be the problem,” he tells a fellow agent. Lee seems keenly aware of all the narratives his movie can be compared to.
Spending time on the water in his retirement days, Harry meets a boat worker named Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) soon intuiting that she is a DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) plant, put in place to monitor his activity. Harry’s suspicions are soon confirmed after his former superior, Clay Varris (Clive Owen), sends a hit squad after Harry. Fleeing from the assassins with Danny, Harry contacts Baron (Benedict Wong) an old pilot friend, looking for a safe house. Things get slightly more complicated when Varris orders DIA’s best asset to follow suit, an assassin who turns out to be a younger clone of Harry.
Even with its unsubtle sci-fi twist, “Gemini Man,” barely qualifies as science fiction. However, the movie is not entirely unlike a genetic espionage experiment, confident and self-convinced in its creative conviction, flawed in execution, and undeniably bursting with capacity for greatness that it doesn’t live up to. The more plot information is presented the less interesting the ideas postulated become. Instead of focusing on developing themes and characters, Lee allots to transport the viewer inside the screen, crafting an art house vacation in the form of a studio movie candy wrapper (cinematographer Dion Beebe, who brought a similar aesthetic to Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice,” shot the picture). It’s an escapist travelogue without the exoticism that is prone to plague international espionage thrillers. Setting and style shine brighter than story progress. The dialog veers close to laughable sometimes, but Lee acknowledges the script’s shortcomings, directing his actors to deliver certain sentiments in a melodramatic manner; virtually everything on screen in constructed to feel like a simulated world the viewer is falling into.
The chase scene at the center of the film is one of the most textured action sequences captured on-screen in recent memory. Being a composition forward filmmaker, Lee is perhaps more meticulous about depth of field precision than any other director on the planet. How the Taiwanese artist uses tactical cover to stage the shootouts is relentlessly impactful. He and Beebe make the viewer feel like they are present in every scene, as if they are right alongside Will Smith, ducking the bullets that whizz across the frame. Lee’s aesthetic confidence and emotional instincts elevate stretches to near transportive territory. He relies too heavily on point-of-view shots that feel reminiscent of first person shooter games, and the hand-to-hand combat looks off with all the frame rate trickery being implemented — especially when it’s shot handheld — but the majority of the stunt work is expertly choreographed. Though the climax is clunky compared to the central set-piece, partially thanks to what seems like a misguided Terminator homage.
Lee’s film feels lavish, yet lived in, awkward and routine, like a respectful formality in blockbuster form. It’s maturely measured entertainment that knows what it cares about and wants to indulge in. Iconography is cliché and certain stereotypes are expressly exaggerated. When Harry meets a Russian contact in a sauna, he’s wearing a spotless bathrobe that says Budapest in cursive letters. The movie kicks itself into high gear by playing in a formal sandbox of the firmly established, by poking fun at its own solemnness. Winstead totally sells the material, whereas Smith is less successful but his pathos shines through, still.
“Gemini Man” is a slice of spy-sci viewers should lose themselves in, not intelligently mull over, an extremely rare case of a 3D gimmick expanding the cinematic experience. Ang Lee has delivered a frame rate genre experiment that values heart and soul more than food for thought — an action-thriller that’s warmhearted rather than cold-blooded. Sure, it leans a little corny, but it’s also beaming with tangible compassion. In lesser hands, the script would have surely just been turned into another copy-cat throwaway, but with Ang Lee behind the camera, a dated and long gestating project morphs into a touching, immersive, and artful, dad-movie experiment, albeit one with a near unsalvageable screenplay.
“Gemini Man” opens Sept. 11 in theaters nationwide.