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Non-Review Review: Gemini Man

Gemini Man is a weird and unashamed nineties action movie throwback, for both better and worse.

This is baked into the film. The poster capitalises on the star power that drives the film. Alluding to the clone drama that drives so much of the plot, the poster to Gemini Man credits lead actor Will Smith twice above the line. In an era where the very concept of the movie star is trapped in a seemingly terminal decline, Gemini Man literally doubles down on its star branding. More than that, there is something surreal in the choice of Will Smith as that leading man, an actor whose career is largely defined by nineties hits like Enemy of the State, Men in Black or Bad Boys and whose career has floundered in recent years.

Face to Face/Off.

Gemini Man leans into this nostalgia. The film’s central hook lies in confronting Will Smith with a younger version of himself. Will Smith plays retiring assassin Henry Brogen, who finds himself hunted by a much younger version of himself. De-aged into the uncanny valley, the younger version of Will Smith consciously evokes the actor’s golden age. The film is set in 2019, but the computer-augmented action star feels lost in time; even his hairstyle and facial hair recall the actor’s appearance in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air rather than anything that might suggest a young man growing up in the twenty-first century.

While there’s a lot to unpack in the film, there’s also something disappointingly lifeless about Gemini Man. One of the film’s big action beats take place in a creepy catacomb, in what feels like an encapsulation of the film. Gemini Man never seems truly alive, instead feeling like a facsimile of another, older style of blockbuster.

Out of scope.

Watching Gemini Man, it often feels as though the script itself might date back to the nineties. The movie’s central plot hinges on a top secret cloning experiment. During the obligatory exposition-in-a-spa scene, the scientist who helpfully provides the movie’s back story even explicitly cites Dolly the Sheep as a point of reference. The anxieties at play in Gemini Man hark back to those of turn-of-the-millennium films like The Sixth Day or Gattaca, tapping into fears about the potential repercussions of the human genome project as comparable to those of splitting the atom.

Even more than that, Gemini Man makes a point to trace its central cloning experiment back to research that leaked out of Russia at the end of the Cold War. There is a sense in which the film stems from the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the erosion of the ordering principles of the Cold War. While the decision to film in Hungary was undoubtedly motivated by modern financial incentives, the Eastern European setting lends the movie the feel and texture of those post-Cold War thrillers that were common after the fall of the Berlin Wall, like GoldenEye or the opening scenes of Mission: Impossible.

Sealing his tomb.

While there are hints of more modern anxieties and themes in the that way that Gemini Man awkwardly intersects with War on Terror concerns about private military contractors operating without accountability or oversight, it taps into a broader sense of existential unease. The characters in Gemini Man are veterans of the first Gulf War, dialogue explicitly referencing “Kuwait” rather than “Iraq.” There is a sense that the characters are seeking an end not to a specific war, but to the concept of war in general. “To the next war,” they toast. “Which is no war.” These are soldiers at the end of history.

Henry Brogen is a particularly nineties sort of protagonist, even beyond being played by Will Smith. Henry is an assassin, but one with a moral code. He only kills “bad guys”, which is a peculiar squaring of the circle; Henry is post-morality, but not amoral. He recalls the protagonists of movies like Assassins or Léon or The Jackal; he is a killer, but not a monster. Naturally, Gemini Man frames Henry’s anxieties as existential; he is “hurt in [his] soul” and “avoiding mirrors” because he cannot bring himself to face the man he has become. So Gemini Man literalists this conflict in the bluntest and most predictable manner possible.

Gun Smith.

Director Ang Lee has always been a fascinating director with a surprising flexibility. He brings a certain surreal artfulness to the fairly paint-by-numbers action scenes. Much has been made of the film’s use of high-frame rate 3D, which actually looks reasonably impressive. Lee understands how to use the format relatively well, repeatedly using depth of field to compliment the 3D photography. The opening shot of Gemini Man is of the roof of a train station, allowing the audience to get a sense of depth, before panning down to focus on a train that extends deep into the background of the shot.

Gemini Man is certainly not a major technological leap forward. It would be unreasonable to compare it to something like Avatar. The HDR 3D is not essential to the film. However, Lee has clearly designed the film with the technology in mind. Shots are repeated framed through windows in order to underscore the depth of field. There are several sequences that unfold largely from a first-person perspective to capitalise on and emphasise the potentially immersive nature of the 3D. Even during the movie’s action sequences, Lee takes a great deal of pleasure in exploding objects so he can hurl debris at the audience.

Making hay of it.

Even outside of the HDR and 3D gimmickry, there is a surprising and endearing artfulness to some of the action in Gemini Man. Lee repeatedly focuses on mirrors and statues, even in the middle of action scenes. It isn’t especially elegant, but it is at least considered. At one point, the two central assassins throw down in a crypt beneath Budapest, wrestling amid bones and dust. The symbolism is hardly original, but it is effective. Gemini Man is a movie that is (vaguely and unfocusedly) about confronting mortality, so what better way to do that than in a space with bones literally cemented into the walls.

However, Lee also embraces an aesthetic that recalls the nineties films of John Woo. Even allowing for the pulpy and playful pleasures of Lee’s work on films like Hulk, there’s something endearingly strange in this influence. Lee has always been a director who refuses to be pigeonholed, as comfortable with the intimate drama of The Ice Storm as with the sweeping action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Here, Lee revels in gratuitous slow motion shots and comically heightened gun fu. One of the film’s more memorable action sequences even evokes the motorbike tussling of Mission: Impossible II.

A vicious cycle.

Of course, this is a logical choice and a reasonable fit. The basic plot of Gemini Man recalls Face/Off – the tagline “to destroy your enemy, you must find him, face him, and then… become him” could apply as readily to either film. Indeed, the basic pop psychology of confronting an aging hit man with a younger and alternate version of himself feels like the kind of concept that could have anchored a late nineties action movie; think Sliding Doors, but with armour-piercing rounds.

Unfortunately, these details are mostly interesting in an academic context. In practice, Gemini Man is mostly predictable and highly formulaic. It does innovate or elaborate upon these classic action movie tropes, so much as play them entirely straight. Naturally, Henry’s plans to retire are scuppered when his employers decide to retire him. When a colleague asks Henry if he has experience dealing with this sort of thing, he replies, “That’s a new one.” However, Henry is the only person surprised by this. Any audience member who has ever seen a movie featuring an assassin knows the first rule of assassination: kill the assassin.

All sewn up.

From its opening moments, Gemini Man moves in an incredibly obvious direction without a single surprise along the way. The plot is paint-by-numbers and can largely be extrapolated by following the path of least resistance from the starting premise. The characters are familiar to the point of being archetypes, often frustratingly so. Henry is the stereotypical tortured assassin, haunted by the violence that he has committed. However, this somewhat neutralises Smith’s natural charm by smothering it in angst. If Gemini Man was intended as a celebration of these classic nineties movie tropes, it instead reads as a eulogy.

To be fair, there is an interesting tension within Gemini Man. Approached from a distance, Gemini Man looks like a broad meditation on the gulf between the action films of the nineties and those of today. (In much the same way as Joker explores the gulf between studio productions of the seventies and their more modern incarnations.) The casting of Will Smith plays into this. A veteran of the nineties, Smith is one of the last blockbuster leading men still standing, although only barely.

On top of the world.

Smith has struggled to adapt to the post-movie star landscape. Smith seems to understand that his star power is no longer a draw of itself, as demonstrated by the failure of films like After Earth and Focus. Smith has pragmatically tried to tether himself to various trends within the movie industry, trying to make a comic book franchise film with Suicide Squad and even headlining the Netflix movie Bright. It has been tough. Smith seems to have finally found a healthy middle ground playing the genie in Aladdin, the rare role within an existing intellectual property that requires a bona fides movie star.

So Gemini Man taps into the idea of a veteran movie star navigating the perilous world of modern movie production. Indeed, it occasionally feels like Tom Cruise would have been the first choice for Gemini Man if he hadn’t already confronted the challenge of mass production and commodification of his star persona in Oblivion. Smith is an embodiment of the kind of leading man who doesn’t exist anymore, facing obsolescence in an era of franchise films and recycled intellectual property. If the brand and the spectacle is the star, then what purpose does the star serve?

The hottest of takes.

It is no surprise that Gemini Man opens with Smith’s character facing retirement, only to immediately throw him into conflict with the trappings of a modern blockbuster. Henry seems to find himself grappling with the various innovations of modern blockbuster film making, feeling like the relic of a bygone world. Gemini Man feels like the work of a studio desperately trying to figure out what makes a successful film in the modern world; Henry navigates a world with the HFR 3D gimmickry of the Hobbit films, confronting a computer-generated replacement who looks like he stepped out of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

At times, Gemini Man suggests the paradox of all this. Confronting Henry with the horror of his grotesque capitalist machine, the mercenary leader Clayton Varris  boasts, “You inspired all of this.” This makes sense. Will Smith broke out as a movie star with Independence Day, one of the films that defined modern spectacle-driven film-making. There is a sense in which Smith has been rendered obsolete by the kind of film that he helped to popularise. While Independence Day offered audiences spectacle on a scale that they had never seen before, the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes that level of spectacle as a baseline.

Just glad to be a Clive.

This is barely subtext. Gemini Man repeatedly and consciously likens Varris’ operation to film production. Combat drills take place on what look like studio backlots, with participants moving to and from “first positions” at the end of each manoeuvre. Henry is repeatedly informed that people have been watching and tracking him, even when he thought he was alone. “I’m a big fan,” one informant assures him, as if talking to an action star rather than a combat veteran. He stops just short of asking for an autograph.

Gemini Man never quite finds a way to pay all of this off, but it adds some interesting subtext to an otherwise frustratingly generic film.

3 Responses

  1. I find it amusing that you say “it often feels as though [Gemini Man’s script] might date back to the nineties,” because… you’re absolutely correct.

    Gemini Man has apparently been in development hell since 1997. Yes, really. It was originally slated to be produced/released by Sony, and directed by the late Tony Scott. At some point it got into the hands of Disney, and their now non-existent animation department The Secret Lab even created a test short for the de-aging technology with the beautiful title Human Face Project. The tech just wasn’t there, though, so it wasn’t really developed until it was sold to Skydance Media in 2016.

    Similarly, it’s also intriguing you mention Tom Cruise possibly being an original choice for the leading role, because again, he was. Actually, as a matter of fact, this film has been in development for so long that the lead role was attached to, at various points, all of the following: Harrison Ford, Chris O’Donnell, Mel Gibson, Jon Voight, Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Sean Connery. *deep breath*

    Not a criticism of the review by any means, I just found it intriguing that you didn’t touch on it.

    • Ha. I wrote the review before finding any of that out, actually! (Sorry, this was in the middle of a very tight schedule.)

      • Oh, haha, no worries, I figured it was probably something like that. Once again, it wasn’t a criticism at all, great work as always; honestly I only found out because I opened Wikipedia and happened to glance at a choice paragraph anyway. Just found it an intriguing substantiation of the thesis of the review.

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