Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Fresher prince


Damn, it's nice when a cinematic experiment works out.  Maybe more people should have actually partaken in it, but that's how it goes.

Directed by Ang Lee
Written by David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke

Spoiler alert: moderate

First off, despite what you may have heard, and even if we ignore its bells and whistles, Gemini Man is fine.  It's an avowedly-generic and reasonably-fun action film with one absurdly great visceral action setpiece in the middle of it, one very cool conceptual action setpiece at the beginning of it, and fairly good (if less giddily-fulfilling) standard-issue action setpieces at the first and second act turns and at the climax.  It hangs these setpieces upon an extremely-stock sci-fi story that could've been more thoughtful than it is without even trying, and it occasionally demonstrates flashes of such thoughtfulness that are frustrating in context.  But that's been a circle that action cinema has only rarely squared ever since it was codified as an independent genre—which, you know, in fairness, is roughly around the time that somebody or other wrote the original screenplay for this in the first place, Gemini Man being a film whose development reaches so ridiculously far back that if some visionary producer had picked it up when it was actually new, it would've obviated the need for it to co-star a computer-generated Will Smith cartoon, because they could've just shot the Young Will Smith scenes in between albums and then waited for him to get old for the rest, and the Benedict Wong part could've been played by DJ Jazzy Jeff.

Just to get it out there, because the least-interesting thing about the movie is its story, Gemini Man is the tale of Henry Brogan (Smith), a gracefully-aging assassin who's been the best there is at what he does for many years, but comes to the realization that his slow physical decline and his worries about his soul have robbed him of his edge, and so he quits.  Shockingly, a quiet retirement for Henry isn't what his superiors have in mind.  The trouble is, Henry is too good at what he does.  He easily dispatches the first team they send to punch his clock, and he drags his good-guy DIA case officer Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and his old friend Baron (Wong) along with him on a globe-hopping escape from an evil government conspiracy.  That's when Clay Varris (Clive Owen) enters the picture.  A shadowy private security contractor whose tentacles reach deep into the American intelligence community, Varris takes it upon himself to rid the world of this particular loose end.  And he's spent the last two decades perfecting the right tool for the job: Clay Junior, a clone of Henry, thirty years younger, whom he raised personally to be the perfect soldier (also Smith, of course, albeit by way of bits).  Thus is the old man confronted with the sins of his past made flesh, and those sins very much want to kill him, even if he would rather redeem them.

So far, so extraordinarily boilerplate, and even the big themes you'd think it might have aren't close to properly-developed in the film.  (Gemini Man could be "about" many things, and never manages to be about any of them for longer than a single exchange of dialogue.)  It doesn't even bother plumbing the meta-ness of a fading movie star coming face-to-face with himself in his prime, being mostly content to indifferently allude to it instead.  (Partly, this is because Smith in 2019 remains too ageless for the tension to be felt; even Tom Cruise is showing his wear-and-tear in more pronounced ways.)

So, in the absence of this particular idea, or any other, Smith offers exactly the pair of performances Gemini Man asks of him—quippy, effortlessly charimastic, possessed of great chemistry with a Winstead who likewise finds the exact right register to complement him (it's a neat bit of acting that Smith's two characters arrive upon this chemistry in different ways)—and he succeeds even against a muddled script that doesn't really want a haunted killer, but nevertheless needs its haunted killer archetype in order to mechanically function.  The most fascinating relationship in the film isn't between Henry and Junior, but between Junior and Varris, which is the one thing the film gets even slightly nuanced about, though it's a nuance the screenplay seems too repulsed by to ever do anything substantial with.  Inevitably, Gemini Man feels a lot like a time capsule from 1995.  That's even a source of nostalgic pleasure—it's refreshingly straightforward for an action movie in 2019.  But it's also the reason it stays so superficial.  If it ever feints toward something emotionally compelling (and it does, all the time), it cuts that short as quickly as possible with the bluntness of a movie that believes in its heart that cardboard cutouts and simplistic morals are all it needs, because what the movie's actually about are chases and 'splosions; and if you caught it on Cinemax on a lazy Sunday in the late 90s, you'd be a liar to claim genuine disappointment, even if I'd agree that you wasted your afternoon.

But here's the damned thing: there are all those bells and whistles, and holy shit, is it ever a blast to watch director Ang Lee play with them as he descends even further into the "monomaniacal tech-head" phase of his career.  Despite a few retreats back into the Oscary middlebrow drama through which Lee first made his name, Lee's 21st century American career has been increasingly devoted to pushing the boundaries of what cinema means in technological terms.  This process started in earnest with 2003's Hulk; I reckon it reached some kind of zenith with 2016's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which had the bearing of an Oscary middlebrow drama, but blatantly existed to serve as a technological test-bed.  Gemini Man doubles-down on both Hulk's bells and Billy Lynn's whistles: like the former film, it centers upon a conflict between its lead and his mirror-self antagonist, brought to life through digital manipulation and motion capture; like the latter, it offers a scenario that uses America's forever wars as an excuse to explore Lee's newest and greatest mania, high-frame-rate 3-D.  The difference here is that Gemini Man does it in the context of mindless popcorn spectacle, which makes Gemini Man's $160 million existence significantly less baffling than its $40 million immediate forerunner.

Yet it seems to have baffled many anyway.  It takes no special effort to find one of Gemini Man's (largely-negative) reviews that admits to not having actually screened it in its intended 60 or 120 frame-per-second 3-D presentations, and, considering that this is the reason the film exists, this seems at the least somewhat disingenuous, if not straight-up disqualifying.  On the other hand, the film has already collapsed at the box office (the notion that Will Smith is a movie star in any operational sense has been badly strained this past decade).  What this means is that Gemini Man was pretty much over as soon as it started, and I'm not "reviewing" it so much as I am bearing witness to it, describing something awesome that I saw and which, if you ain't seen it yet, you never will.

And that's a shame, because Gemini Man is a fairly staggering experience, with its blurless HFR, its 3-D, and Lee's bright, cheery lighting combining to offer the kind of madness-inducing higher geometry that Lovecraft once described, but, you know, fun.  Depending on the exact shot, it's likely the best-accomplished 3-D I've ever seen in my life—Gravity in 3-D was a way more involving experience, but maybe technically a step behind.  Gemini Man luxuriates in the tangible presence of its exciting, kinetic imagery, and this is, after all, one of the best things any action film could possibly do.

Now, it is not, I'm afraid, consistent: it depends on the exact nature of the shot composition and Gemini Man fluctuates between "violent titans looming out of the screen" and "malfunctioning holodeck" frequently enough that, even on the technological level it wants to be judged on, it's no masterpiece, nor on average even great.  I expect that the common complaint about it ("it feels like a video game") arises, and not entirely unfairly, from two things in particular: one, like many actioners, it has a plot that could have come from a video game, which isn't necessarily a demerit; and two, Lee's blatant disinterest in shooting expositional dialogue, of which Gemini Man has an annoying amount, and this is a dermit, insofar as it makes too much of the film feel like a cross between a telenovela and a video game cutscene.  Basically, the filming technique just isn't quite compatible with the full range of shot scales.  It can't handle regular close-ups at all, which routinely makes the actors' faces look like floating holograms composited in front of a stock photo.  It can only handle long shots sometimes, and these look more interesting than the regular closeups but also worse, with their various dimensionally-arranged planes incompletely glued together.

But any time Lee opts for a medium shot, especially one with an object in the foreground, business in the background, and deep focus unifying the planes of action, Gemini Man is simply stunning (there are several scenes with water that are just trippy), and while this particular mode of composition is (fortunately) the basic building block of the quieter scenes, that can be merely quietly stunning.  It's also the basis for every action scene.  These are loudly and assaultively stunning, and it is clear that the action sequences were much more rigorously worked-out.  That all-time great action scene I described up top—a motorcycle chase that keeps escalating in its mind-blowing ridiculousness till it arrives upon its principals using their bikes as bludgeons—is the kind of thing that made me realize I haven't seen a truly great action sequence in a really long time, and nobody who found the underwhelming John Wick 3 worth jacking off to, despite all of the same problems and none of the same strengths, has any right to say the first bad word about this.

When Gemini Man is working the way it's supposed to work, it doesn't even feel like an action movie, but more like an extraordinary stunt-show that you've been given the magical ability to view from the inside, and from different angles: motorcycles, explosions, martial arts, and the effects of gunfire are each given the same overwhelming treatment within the HFR 3-D (plus judiciously-applied slow-motion), with Lee continually emphasizing the sheer too-muchness of their very physicality.  It's the first action film I know of that embraces the fact that real explosions and gunfights look fake because we've been oversaturated with movie magic; somehow it looks cooler when it's presented in the artless, even light of a blazing sun than it does when Lee goes for something more controlled and precious.  This impression, of it happening right before your eyes, is largely inescapable even when what you're looking at is, in fact, always at least half-cartoon.  (Which brings us to Smith's digital double.  In the overall, it's gratifyingly convincing; but "in the overall" does concede that it fails sometimes, and when it fails, it does fail pretty badly.  The biggest technical failure is when they demand Junior emote with great passion, and his forehead crinkles in such a way it looks like his face is going to fall off.)

The biggest problem the movie has, then, is that it isn't operating on its highest level all the time: besides the cutscenes, it also arrives at a climax (complete with a very easily-guessed twist that hopes to address the structural problem that most of the film is not actually Henry and Junior fighting each other) that stalls out the very instant it seemed to be starting up, like Lee ran out of money.  (Plotwise, it culminates with a beat that just abandons whatever emotional logic it possessed in favor of a brusque, violent joke; ultimately it arrives at an epilogue that short-circuits any story logic it had, too.)  But it does operate on its highest level often enough, with images I'll never unsee, that I walked out feeling exhausted and satisfied, and ecstatic at having not missed my chance.  Gemini Man is the one truly theatrical experience I've had this whole year, and I wouldn't trade that for anything.

Score: 8/10


  1. You've really outdone yourself on the title for this one, my friend.

    1. Thank you, B. I failed to fit in an elusive Robert Denby reference, but perhaps this is for the best.