Ang Lee remains one of our most visionary filmmakers, winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his wire-fu in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), the Best Director Oscar for his socially progressive “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and his second Best Director Oscar for his wondrous 3D in “Life of Pi” (2012).
This weekend, the Taiwanese master pushes the visual limits again with “Gemini Man,” a film meant to be watched in 3D with 4K resolution at 120 frames per second, rather than the traditional 24 frames per second. Sadly, a majority of theaters can’t present these specs, so most folks will never see Lee’s true vision.
As a result, “Gemini Man” is an unusual experience, simultaneously distracting in its digital effects, enjoyable for its charismatic lead, commendable for its sharp direction, yet generic with a predictable script resting on a high-concept premise.
The plot follows aging hitman Henry Brogan (Will Smith), who hangs it up after 72 kills because his conscience is getting to him. Turns out, his latest target was a setup, forcing him to go on the run with outed agent Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to avoid assassins. Soon, he finds himself trapped in a government conspiracy involving Clay Varris (Clive Owen), who runs a black-ops group called “GEMINI” that forces him to face a younger clone of himself (also Will Smith).
Smith is the rare star we go to see no matter what he’s in. Sometimes it’s a home run: “Independence Day” (1996), “Men in Black” (1997), “Enemy of the State” (1998), “Ali” (2001), “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2007), “Concussion” (2015). Other times, he elevates average projects into fan favorites: “Bad Boys” (1995), “I, Robot” (2004), “Hitch” (2005), “I Am Legend” (2007), “Seven Pounds” (2014).
In “Gemini Man,” he plays a double role, one as himself in his 50s, then also doing a motion-capture performance for his digitally de-aged 20-something clone. His grizzled vet role is quite compelling, showing Smith has the chops to enter a new reflective phase of his career. His younger clone, however, feels oddly lifeless compared to the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” we watched grow up on TV.
Don’t get me wrong; it looks like Will Smith, there just isn’t the same light behind the eyes. He looks cartoonish when he talks with a blurry mouth, his motorcycle antics appear detached from reality, while his punches and kicks look like a “Street Fighter” video game. Even when the action stops for falling action where all is right with the world, it looks like a fake digital person walking across screen.
Perhaps it would look better in the proper frame rate, just like the airplanes would seem less gimmicky in 3D. At least we get good old-fashioned camerawork from Lee, including a fisheye lens of a train bulging down tracks, a street-puddle reflection of Smith being stalked by his younger self, a car-mirror showing a sniper’s shot, and a killer single-take following a bike chase through alleys.
Writers David Benioff (“Game of Thrones”), Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”) and Darren Lemke (“Turbo”) globe trot from Cartagena to Budapest, acquiring more passport stamps than “Bourne” movies, while the sci-fi premise recalls James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2000) and Rian Johnson’s “Looper” (2012), which deserve more points for originality.
It’s still an intriguing premise here; it just takes a while to get to the “promise of the premise” of Will squaring off against his younger self. Naturally, it’s a surprise to the character, but we the audience have been waiting for it after seeing the trailers and posters. As written, we get an elongated setup with one too many double switches before the actual meat of the story really kicks into high gear.
As the rogue conspiracy unfolds, the red herrings are pretty rudimentary. The villain is pretty easy to peg from the start, played generically by Clive Owen as we build to a contrived climax where all of important people are magically in the same room for a final villain speech with American flags in the background. It’s here that you’ll guess the final two twists, predicting the identity of a masked henchman, then realizing who will pull the final trigger before it is revealed.
As for the strong female character, Danny makes a compelling sidekick that can hold her own in combat, but at times falls victim to damsel cliches, like a strip search to check for a wire, then getting held captive with tape over her mouth. It’s outdated moments like these that show the script has been tinkered with for decades, originally conceived in 1997 with various directors (Tony Scott, Curtis Hanson) and stars (Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson) passing in development hell.
Ultimately, the film is more enjoyable than critics are claiming, its technical feat outshining its story flaws. If you want to check it out, the only local place showing it in 3D at 120 fps is the AMC White Marsh 16, but even that is 2K rather than 4K. Other theaters will show it in HFR 3D at 60 fps, which is a little closer. Sigh, maybe someday we’ll all get to see the film the way Lee intended. Until then, we can only judge it based on the version we’re able to see, which is but a clone.