Hollywood uses the term “development hell” to describe the creative limbo that films find themselves somewhere between being a finished script with an attached director to be a completed product. Films land in development hell for a myriad of reasons — some of which are directly tied to attached talent, some of which are not — but the attitude is always that a film in development hell needs to make it out of development hell. The best possible solution is a finished product, and yet so many films that have been made after years in development hell would have been better off never existing at all. Reworking a movie into oblivion while you wait for funds to clear or for an egotistical star to get what they want rarely results in a better movie, not to mention that whatever you come up with in 1998 can’t possibly still be topical and relevant in 2018.
In Gemini Man’s case, the reasons why it languished in development hell are probably less capricious. Gemini Man is a high-concept action film whose entire premise relies on technology convincing enough that an actor can play their own younger self — a CGI feat that would almost certainly not have been possible in 1997, when the film was originally set up for production. But a lot of time has passed since 1997; even if de-aging technology has been deemed satisfactory enough for big guns like Martin Scorsese to build a whole movie around it, just giving an action movie script from two decades ago a spitshine does not exactly warrant its existence. Those are the bizarre conditions that led to Ang Lee’s latest, which pairs his desire to infuse cutting-edge technology with “subtle” emotion to a corny script that would have made a perfectly serviceable Tony Scott (or, perhaps, a John Woo paycheque gig) movie two decades ago.
Henry Brogan (Will Smith) has invested his life in being a killing machine. As a result, he’s the best the government has ever seen, capable of shooting a guy in the head as he sits on a moving train a mile away. Though he’s never fucked up a kill in the past, Brogan becomes increasingly concerned about innocent casualties in the line of duty, which prompts him to start making a move towards retirement. He’s barely even settled into his fishing gear when he discovers his every move is being tracked by his former friend and boss, Clay Varris (Clive Owen). The whole murderous kerfuffle sees him teamed up with a fellow blown-cover agent, Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and escaping Varris’s men — one of whom proves to be an extremely capable foe. Junior, as he’s known, is such a formidable adversary for Henry because he is Henry — or rather, a younger version of Henry that was cloned years ago as a prototype for a super-soldier.
If this sounds spectacularly like a movie that might have been made when Clinton was president, swathed with chugga-chug metal and plasticky-matte armor for its protagonists, you’re not wrong. The core of Gemini Man is a fairly throwaway action thriller that barely scratches the surface of the issues that Lee is so clearly drawn to in the material. It’s a sensitive action film in which Lee really takes the time to let the scenes between characters that aren’t trying to kill each other breathe; when Henry outlines his traumatic childhood and the fact that he’s still a virgin at age 51 (!), you can tell that Lee really cares about that aspect of the film. Alas, the screenplay for Gemini Man is full of clunky, tin-eared dialogue , which makes it doubly bizarre — like a movie directed by robots who have finally cracked the code that creates emotion… without fully understanding it.
It seems that Gemini Man is mainly a vessel for Lee to explore two technical advancements that have, thus far, been met with little more than scattered interest: de-ageing technology and HFR, the extremely detailed high-frame-rate system that you may have seen in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies and (much less likely), Lee’s previous film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The screening of Gemini Man I attended was not optimized for HFR, so I can only comment that the film has a kind of flat, digital sheen that’s not as distracting as other heavily digital projects I’ve seen. The de-ageing technology, on the other hand, is fairly hit-or-miss. It’s extremely distracting at times, given not only that Junior has a noticeable perma-pout, but that we as a culture have a very specific image of what Will Smith looked and sounded like at the time, and this morose, pouty robot man just seems slightly off-kilter.
Lee uses the technology for the obvious — to have showy fight scenes and insane stunts where both of Smith’s faces are visible as their bodies careen off buildings in impossible ways — but he doesn’t seem that interested in the actual action part of it. An early action scene on a couple of motorcycles is a highlight (especially the latter half, where Junior is the only one with a motorcycle and he wields it like a bladed weapon), but the film also affects a plastic, heavily video-game influenced aesthetic in its action scenes. Lee turns to first-person POV indiscriminately and, for all of his balletic choreography, the fights scenes feel airless.
Ultimately, Gemini Man never really feels alive on any plane. It’s a movie obsessed with emotion that never taps into its emotion and an action movie that dismisses its own acrobatic exploits at every step. It is, however, a truly peculiar movie, an ostensible action blockbuster that pointedly avoids having a final action setpiece and finds its protagonists sitting around in comfy hotel robes drinking Bloody Marys while waiting for additional exposition. When a rail-gun firing super-soldier looking like a superhero from a 1960s Japanese cartoon showed up deep in Act 3, I had to admit that Gemini Man was keeping me on my toes. I’d much prefer to see more of these deeply idiosyncratic, somewhat misguided efforts (Ang Lee is in fact responsible for one of the all-timers, his baffling yet heartfelt 2003 take on Hulk) than something as cookie-cutter as, I don’t know, Skyscraper, but the fact remains that Gemini Man is more easily pondered than experienced. ■
Gemini Man opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 11. Watch the trailer here: