It’s been said that there are only seven basic plots, and that all stories are built upon one or more of them. It’s the reason movies often feel familiar in their narratives or repetitive in their plot lines. And it’s the reason why the premise behind Gemini Man, the latest from director Ang Lee, feels so damn recognizable on paper. Aging assassin is targeted for extermination by the very agency he’s dedicated his life to, and the super soldier sent to take his life is his own clone — it’s basically plots 2 and 5 from that list of seven.
We’ve seen this tale before, but the beauty — and the absolute thrill — of Lee’s film is that we’ve never seen it quite like this. Lee shot Gemini Man in 3D and 120 frames per second, a noticeable increase on the film standard of 24fps, and the result is a film that looks “real” in its ability to drop viewers directly into the action, interactions, and locales. It’s still a dodgy tech at times, but when it comes to the action sequences the film and technology come together to create some truly stunning and exhilarating set-pieces. But first, the story.
Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is a government assassin who we first meet as he takes out a target on a moving train from over a mile away. The mission is a success, but Henry is hanging up his rifle for the greener pastures of retirement because he knows age is slowly chipping away at his skill set. It’s short-lived, though, as a younger, faster agent is soon on his trail intent on retiring him permanently, and it only takes one clash — it starts as a rooftop shoot-out before shifting into a motorcycle chase through the tight streets and alleys of Cartagena, Colombia — to bring the two face to face. Junior (a younger Smith, courtesy of CG wizardry) has only a single-minded mission while his older self needs to both stay alive and figure out what the hell is happening.
The story, based on a long dormant script credited to David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke, plays out in broad strokes well in line to what viewers should expect, and while the details are tweaked here and there the end result is a familiar one. You know where things are going here if you’ve seen more than a handful of thrillers, but Lee and his tech elevate the hell out of it, though, with visuals that astound, delight, and occasionally annoy. That last bit is fairly minimal, certainly less so than the last time Lee played in this 120fps sandbox with 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and instead we’re gifted this time around with far more of the positives.
The big one on that front is the action sequences that make this one of the year’s best for kinetic wonder and memorably exciting fights, chases, and gun battles. The film tosses multiple action sequences our way starting with that shootout and chase and carrying on to bigger gun fights, brutal brawls, and more. The technology (at least when viewed in 3D and higher than normal frame rates) puts viewers in the frame like never before, and while it feels odd during scenes with characters talking it raises the heart rate once fists, feet, and bullets start flying. The motorcycle chase is a thing of beauty with its camera work and stunt coordination, and the hand to hand fights — sometimes occurring between the two Smiths — are fast moving, reactionary brawls that truly feel like people fighting for their lives.
Others enter the fray including friends old (Clive Owen, Benedict Wong) and new (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but the focus is on Mr. and Mr. Smith, and the results are brilliantly entertaining. Sure, there’s minor distraction here and there from obvious CG and digital face-mapping efforts, but with only a single exception they’re easy to ignore in favor of the brilliantly orchestrated chaos unfolding all around. Smith does great work with both characters channeling Henry’s wisdom and exhaustion just as well as he does Junior’s ego, ambition, and confusion, and it feels every bit like the return of the Will Smith who once ruled the box-office. He anchors the film dramatically while delivering once again as a big-screen action hero.
That’s not to shortchange the supporting cast, though, as they’re all having a blast here. Wong is solid comic relief, Owen is in his element as a real prick, and Winstead kicks enormous amounts of ass as an agent more than capable of holding her own. Her character is a major player in much of the action, from tough scraps to extended gun battles, and it’s enough to piss you off all over again that she was brushed aside so easily in A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) so that John McClane’s male child could take part in the action. (You’re damn right I’m still holding a grudge about that bullshit.)
As mentioned, the story is utterly familiar and easily predictable on its handful of turns and reveals, and it’s also fairly hokey. That in and of itself is neither good nor bad, but viewers adverse to cheese in their action spectacles may have a hard time swallowing some of Gemini Man‘s goofier character beats. For my money, the cast sells it just fine meaning it works in the context of this world and these characters. Questions of nature and nurture come into play alongside ideas of self-determination and worth, and it ultimately makes for fairly light genre entertainment. The film feels very in line with the likes of Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013) in that way — lightweight dramatic content, fun action and thrills, top-notch star-power and personality, and a genre story that’s never as surprising as it wants to be — and the addition of a rousing, propulsive score (this time by Lorne Balfe) completes the comparison. To be clear, this is a good thing.
There are hiccups here, from the basic story to the bumps and scrapes evident in the still emerging tech, and it would be unfair to fault viewers for whom the film’s look never quite congeals. It fairs far better than Peter Jackson’s foray into this particular battlefield with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) which he shot in 48fps, but some of the same issues remain. Your mileage will vary, of course, depending on taste and format the film is viewed in, and as of this writing I still need to see Gemini Man again in standard 2D/24fps to see what if anything is different. (I’ll update this review once I’ve done so.)
As it stands, though, the result of Lee’s pairing of rote tale and technological experiment is a fascinatingly flawed experience. You’ll want to discuss the pros and cons of the tech later — there’s ample arguments for both — but odds are you’ll be having too much fun to worry about it during the movie itself. Gemini Man delivers as big, thrilling, impressively crafted entertainment that is probably worth seeing twice.