*Special Note: Sorry for the late review, I was out of town and couldn’t get to a screening, but it’s here now!*
Gemini Man is a pretty safe call to be director Ang Lee’s worst movie. And maybe that’s unfair, seeing that there’s a couple that I haven’t seen, but at the very least, this one is a far cry from when the director cared about making movies about people. Even his misbegotten Hulk adaptation is concerned with a tortured father-son relationship as much as its CGI superhero. But that kind of care is nowhere to be found in the bland and generic Gemini Man, a movie that avoids all of its interesting ideas about identity and legacy in favor of Will Smith fighting a younger CGI version of Will Smith whose appearance ranges from convincing to cartoony. The artistry and substance in Gemini Man are nearly nonexistent. There’s just a director trying out a tool that some other filmmaker will probably use to a far better effect somewhere down the line.
The film centers on Henry Brogan (Smith) who’s an assassin for the Defense Intelligence Agency who knows he’s getting rusty, so he decides to retire. However, when he stumbles upon a file spiked with bad intel, he becomes a target for the DIA and its defense contractor partner Clay Verris (Clive Owen), who runs the paramilitary organization Gemini. Henry soon goes on the run with burned neophyte DIA agent Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and after they easily dispatch a bunch DIA goons, Clay convinces the DIA to send in “Junior” (also Smith), a clone of Brogan whose twenty-five years younger and is supposed to have all of Henry’s strengths with none of his weaknesses.
The core question that Gemini Man just can’t seem to answer is why it bothers with an expensive CGI double of Smith rather than just finding a younger actor and applying old-age make-up. We’ve seen the old-vs-young thing before, but it was always narratively justified (i.e. Jeff Bridges in TRON: Legacy). But there’s no good reason to make a younger Will Smith other than to play around with some tech tools, and that weak excuse seems to be the driving force behind the entire existence of Gemini Man. Which is a shame because there are a couple of interesting ideas that the film could play with. From the likes of regret and legacy to a father-son relationship that had the potential of a rich dynamic, Gemini Man instead discards all of that and always goes for the simplest route possible. The movie is so concerned with just pushing the plot forward that it neglects character, and the plot is rote and extensively predictable. It feels like it came from the 90s, and that’s probably because it did since the screenplay has been kicking around since 1997 when its story beats would have felt remotely fresh.
Watching Gemini Man, it becomes tough to believe that it’s from the same filmmaker who delivered such care and delicacy to his characters and their stories in movies like The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Gemini Man‘s only concern seems to be with its digital character, and that digital character only works intermittently. (I feel it’s also important to say that the film was shot in 120fps and 3D, none of which I saw it in. So I can’t help but wonder if the film would look better in the higher frame rate, but Paramount didn’t deem this presentation essential to a wide audience, so instead we’re left with a movie that’s largely kind of an eyesore.) The visual gimmick often feels more distracting than necessary. There are charitable explanations for the uncanny-valley effect of Smith 2.0; maybe your younger clone should look a little off. But it remains an empty, distancing stunt, and not a particularly moving one. No matter how many tears Smith sheds, he and Lee never transform this baby hitman into a plausible sci-fi conceit, let alone invest him with a soul. Silly, bland and left stale by its shopworn central theme, Gemini Man is sunken by its extraordinarily vapid script to the point that it slowly just becomes Ang Lee messing around on a tech demo.
One Cut of the Dead
It’s not saying very much to declare Shinichirou Ueda’s directorial debut the best zombie comedy since Shaun of the Dead. The decomposing sub-genre has been in desperate need of fresh brains ever since Edgar Wright brought it back to life. Enter One Cut of the Dead, a micro-budget, high-concept work that not only matches the best of its predecessors, but strongly articulates why people are drawn to the genre in the first place. Ueda’s self-reflexive delight honors and humiliates zombie cinema in equal measure. The fun begins with a virtuosic but strangely casual thirty-seven-minute long-take that messes with your expectations from start to finish. With the film soon backtracking to show you what was happening behind the scenes of all the weird errors and bad performances, a clever structural trick that gives goofy jokes added depth by essentially putting punchline ahead of setup.
One Cut of the Dead is a film that’s safe to say is best seen going in knowing nothing. So I won’t say much more (plot wise). For the most part, the film is so heartfelt and at times hilarious that it kind of helps balance the contrivances that hold it all together. And the film’s middle section does start to get sluggish, but it’s all ultimately brought back to life again. Running on scrappy, DIY energy, One Cut of the Dead delivers a refreshing take on the zombie genre and finds a lane to becoming an ode to the chaos and compromises of filmmaking.