Saturday, October 26, 2019

It Came From The Cineplex: Gemini Man

Gemini Man was written by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke (at least five other additional screenwriters tacked it over the years as well). It was directed by Ang Lee.

Benioff previously wrote 25th Hour, Troy, Stay, The Kite Runner, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (oh, HE'S the one) and Brothers. Benioff and his working partner D.B. Weiss adapted George RRRRRRR Martin's Game Of Thrones to TV, serving as showrunners and writing many of the scripts over the series' eight seasons.

Ray is a prolific writer who previously penned Color Of Night, Hidden Assassin, Volcano, Hart's War, Shattered Glass, Suspect Zero, Flightplan, Breach, State Of Play, The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips, Secret In Their Eyes and Overlord (which I liked quite a bit). Lemke previously wrote Shrek Ever After, Jack The Giant Slayer, Turbo, Goosebumps, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween and received "story by" credit on Shazam.

Lee previously directed Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense And Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride With The Devil, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk (the one with Eric Bana that's NOT part of the MCU), Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution, Taking Woodstock, Life Of Pi (ugh) and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

Believe it or not, Gemini Man was first conceived by Darren Lemke wayyyyy back in 1997, and has been languishing in Development Hell for over twenty years! Lemke first sold his script to Walt Disney Pictures in the late 90s, with Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide, etc) attached to direct. At one point Harrison Ford, Chris O'Donnell, Mel Gibson, Jon Voight, Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood (!), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone and even Sean Connery (!!!) were considered for the lead role of Henry Brogan.

The main stumbling block the film faced was its cloning subject matter. Disney's animation department worked on the CGI necessary to create a younger version of an actor, but the technology just wasn't advanced enough in 1997. Why they couldn't have just found a younger lookalike, or cast a father & son acting team I have no idea.

In 2016, CGI technology finally advanced to the point where it was possible to "clone" an actor, and the project was revived. Disney sold the script to Skydance Media in 2016, and Ang Lee agreed to direct in 2017. Will Smith signed on in the lead role(s), and filming began at long last in February of 2018, some twenty one years after the movie was originally conceived. Whew! Someone reeeeeally wanted to make this film!

So after such an interminable production period, was Gemini Man worth the wait? Eh, sadly no. The script is woefully underdeveloped, and feels exactly like a movie that was written twenty years ago. The plot makes little or no sense, character motivations switch on a dime, there are massive amounts of needless exposition and the dialogue is extremely clunky.

Oddly enough, Will Smith feels like he's phoning in his performance and giving it his all at the same time. He seems dull and disinterested as main character Henry Brogan, but curiously engaged as his clone Junior. Go figure.

Worst of all, for an action movie it's just plain dull. The entire first half of the film is nothing but setup and endless scenes of characters standing around talking. We don't even meet Henry's clone (arguably the whole reason everyone came out to the cineplex) until the halfway point, but by then most of the audience is sleeping soundly in their seats.

I'm starting to come to the conclusion that I just don't care for Ang Lee as a director. His films are visually stunning, but their stories tend to leave me cold. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was gorgeous to look at but little else, and I was bored by his Psychology 101 take on Hulk. The less said about Life Of Pi the better, as I absolutely loathed that film. Sadly, Gemini Man did nothing to change my opinion of his work.

For reasons known only to him, Ang Lee filmed Gemini Man in 4k 3D at 120 HFR (meaning it's shot at 120 frames per second, instead of the standard 24). Lee then fumed and blasted the cinema industry when he found out there was no theater in the world that could play his movie as he meant it to be seen. A scant fourteen theaters in America were able to run the film at its intended 120 frame rate, but at just 2k instead of 4.

OK, that's all on him. You can't film a movie in some super advanced brand new format and then get pissed when no one can play it that way. Personally I'm glad I saw it at 24 frames per second. A few years back Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit movies at 60 frames per second. Most audiences agreed that it made the movies look like cheap soap operas shot on videotape. Who needs that? Films projected at 24 frames look cinematic— like real movies. We don't need fancy new frame rates, thanks, and I don't get why directors are so obsessed with upping them.

Amazingly Gemini Man has managed to gross a respectable $122 million worldwide. Unfortunately it cost a whopping $138 million to make. These days movies need to gross twice their production budgets just to break even. I don't see it making it to $276 million, much less passing that amount, meaning Gemini Man is a certified flop.


The Plot:
Henry Brogan (played by Will Smith) is a fifty one year old sharpshooter/assassin for the US government. As the movie opens he's assigned to assassinate a known terrorist on a bullet train. He plants himself on a hillside with a high powered rifle and waits for the train to fly by. 

Unfortunately a little girl on the train gets in the way, causing Henry to delay his shot. He ends up hitting the terrorist in the neck instead of the head as planned. Either way, the target's just as dead, so I'm not sure why it's a problem. But this minor slip-up, along with the fact he could have killed the little girl, causes Henry to reevaluate his life. He decides to get out of the assassin game.

Henry retires to Georgia and spends his days fishing. While gassing up his boat one morning, he has a meet cute with Dani (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead— or is it Summer Glau?), who works in the dock office. Henry sets sail and pulls up alongside the yacht of his old friend Jack Willis. He tells Henry that the "foreign terrorist" he killed was actually an innocent American scientist. Henry demands proof, and Jack says to talk with a man named Yuri in Budapest.

Cut to government agents Janet Lassiter and Clay Varris (played by Clive Owen), who are listening in on Henry's conversation via spy satellite (?). Varris is the head of the top secret black ops project codenamed GEMINI (we have a partial title!), and realizes Henry just became a security threat. He tells Lassiter they have to eliminate him.

Henry realizes Dani's secretly a government agent tasked with monitoring him, and calls her out. That night agents under Lassiter's command break into Henry's home and he easily dispatches them. He shows up at Dani's place and tells her to come with him if she wants to live (whoops, wrong movie!). They kill the grunts sent after them and speed off in a stolen boat.

Henry and Dani stop at a remote island. There they're met by Henry's old friend and fellow assassin Baron (played by Benedict Wong), who flies them to Colombia for some reason.

Meanwhile, Varris is livid that Lassiter's forces couldn't manage to eliminate one agent. He then sends out his own top assassin to kill Henry. This hitman shows up in Colombia and attacks Henry, and we get a big action setpiece as the two men battle one another with guns, grenades and even motorcycles. 

At one point Henry gets a good look at the assassin, and is stunned to see he looks like a younger version of himself. This younger copy stronger and far faster than Henry, and comes very close to killing him. At the last second the police arrive, and the young assassin scurries off. Henry's arrested and taken to jail.

Cut to Varris' house, where he wakes and sees the assassin tending to the wounds he received in the fight (wait, how the hell'd he get back to the States so fast?). We then find out that this assassin, who's imaginatively named "Junior," is Varris' adopted son. He asks Varris why the man he was sent to kill looks just like him, and Varris tells him not to worry about it and finish the job.

Dani and Baron manage to get Henry out of jail. Henry wonders why the assassin looks like he did at twenty. Dani figures it's Henry's child, but he assures her he has no offspring (which is something he could never know for sure). Apparently the idea of cloning never once occurs to either of these geniuses.

Henry, Dani & Baron then fly to Budapest. Dani takes Junior's discarded hat to a lab, where it's confirmed that he and Henry share identical DNA. Henry finally meets with Yuri, who tells him GEMINI was a top secret cloning project, and the "terrorist" Henry killed was one of its top scientists. Apparently Varris wanted to eliminate the scientiest so he could take over GEMINI and use it to create an army of disposable clones who feel neither pain or emotion. At least I think that's his plan. It's all very vague.

Henry calls his old boss and says he wants Junior to bring Dani safely back to the US, where she'll be cleared of all charges and reinstated as an agent. Junior arrives and collects Dani, but sets a trap for Henry. Dani warns Henry through a tiny spy speaker in her mouth, and Henry's able to take Junior by surprise. There's another big action setpiece battle between the two men, which briefly wakes the audience.

Henry manages to get the upper hand, and explains that Junior is a clone of himself. Shattered, Junior denies the obvious truth and manages to escape.

Junior returns to GEMINI (again, how'd he get there so fast?) and confronts his "father," who confirms he's a clone. He says he's better than Henry ever was, and he loves him more than any father ever loved his real son. And just like that, Junior realizes he's father's an evil bastard, instantly turns against him and sides with Henry.

Junior sneaks out of GEMINI and tracks down Henry, who's just landed back in the States. He tells him he's now on his side, and wants to help him bring down Varris. Henry urges him to quit the assassin game now before it's too late, and make something of his artificial life. Just then the group is ambushed by Varris' forces, and Baron's killed. Furious, Junior attacks Varris and after a brief fight, knocks him out.

Henry, Dani and Junior are then attacked by an even more impressive helmeted assassin— one who's impervious to bullets and seemingly feels no pain. He jumps and parkours around the set in another action sequence. After Henry and the others shoot him several hundred times, the masked assassin is eventually stopped. Henry removes the assassin's helmet, revealing he's an even younger clone of himself— this time genetically modified to feel no pain or have pesky emotions to get in the way of killing. As they watch, the disposable clone slumps over and dies.

Varris wakes and tries to justify his actions, saying his clone army will spare the lives and families of millions of "real" soldiers. Junior's heard enough, and points a gun at Varris' head. Henry begs Junior not to pull the trigger, saying he'll never be able to live with himself it he does. Junior eventually stands down, and Henry instantly shoots Varris in the head. Apparently he figured one more kill won't hurt his already mangled conscience.

Henry meets with his former boss, who spouts an impressive wad of exposition, explaining that the GEMINI Project has been dismantled and there are no more clones anywhere in the world. That was easy!

Henry travels to a local college, where Dani's apparently now a student? I think? It's not quite clear. The two of them catch up, then Henry sees Junior walking through the campus, surrounded by a bevy of female students.

Despite the fact that a couple days ago he was a deadly assassin, he's now started a new life as a college student and calls himself Jackson Brogan. Henry and Dani give him helpful advice, but he tells 'em both to shut it, as he wants to finally live his own life.

• There's not a lot to say about this film, so this'll be brief.

• Be careful not to confuse Gemini Man with The Gemini Man, the short lived 1976 TV series about a secret agent who can control his invisibility through his hip, high-tech digital watch.

Gemini Man takes place primarily in Georgia, Colombia and Budapest. Oddly enough, the crew actually filmed in all those places, rather than faking it with establishing shots and greenscreens. That's mighty unusual these days. 

• Henry meets with his old pal Jack Willis in the middle of the ocean. Even though there's no one around for hundreds of miles, Henry spots the glint of a satellite far above, and realizes they're being monitored. Sure enough, Varris and Lassiter are using the satellite to listen in on Henry's conversation.

Jesus Christ! That is one SENSITIVE microphone? Is that really a thing? Can modern spy satellites really hear people talking on the Earth's surface?
• Will Smith is currently fifty one, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead is thirty four. Glad to see Gemini Man continues the time-honored Hollywood tradition of pairing with love interests half their age.

OK, technically they're not love interests, but Henry and Dani are definitely more than just acquaintances.

• The action scenes in Gemini Man are all well done— it's just too bad there're so few of them and they don't start till the halfway point.

• During Henry's first battle with his youthful doppelganger, he tosses a grenade at Junior. As it flies toward him, Junior actually shoots the grenade at just the right angle to hurl it back at Henry. He then dives for cover a split second before it explodes.

Um... wouldn't shooting a grenade be a really bad idea? Wouldn't that just cause it to explode prematurely? I guess it was gonna go off anyway in a couple more seconds, so you might as well give it a try. It still seems iffy to me though.

• Apparently Junior isn't just a clone, he's also a teleporter. All through the film he flits back and forth across the globe in a matter of minutes. He attacks Henry in Columbia, then shows up at Varris' house in the States an hour or so later. Varris sends him to Budapest, where Henry manages to turn him to his side. He then confronts Varris at his house again, seemingly the same day.

Note that this happens over and over in the film, to the point of absurdity. Either Junior's got a reeeeally fast plane, or he can open some sort of dimensional portal to Varris' home.

• Like everything in this movie, the issue of cloning and just how it works is vague and ill-defined. Junior's supposedly twenty one, right? Based on Varris' dialogue (and the photo of him and a young Junior on a fishing trip), it seems he's telling the truth when he says he raised Junior as his own son. 

That would mean Junior was born or decanted or whatever in 1998. So why is he the only clone? Surely Varris would have tried to make more of them?

And what about the even younger Ninja Henry clone? He looks to be about eighteen. Did Varris raise him as well? Or did he figure out a way to artificially age clones to adulthood in a short period of time.

I think that's what's happening here. Yuri warns Henry that Varris has "made a breakthrough" and is playing God with DNA. Varris also wants an army of Henry clones, and that couldn't happen if they all aged normally. I'm betting he definitely found a way to quickly age them.

Again, none of this is really spelled out in the film, so I'm just guessing here.

• Junior may be the perfect assassin, but he needs to work on his loyalty. He's been raised by Varris his entire life, and considers him his father. Yet Henry spends all of thirty seconds telling him that Varris is bad news, and Junior instantly betrays his father and switches sides. Yeah, that's some lazy writing there.

• At one point Junior asks Henry, "You were born in Philadelphia, right?" Yes. Yes he was. West Philadelphia in fact. Born and raised.

• Obviously Gemini Man's story takes a backseat to the cloning and de-aging FX, which is what the audience came to see. For the most part, they don't disappoint. The CGI looked a little wonky in a couple of scenes, but for the vast majority of the movie they looked flawless. I had absolutely no problem believing I was looking at at twenty year old Will Smith.

I assumed the FX team built a CGI version of young Will Smith's head, then superimposed it over another actor. Nope! While there was an actor on set to provide motion capture and photo reference, the FX crew completely replaced him with an all-CGI Will Smith. Even his clothes! That's pretty impressive.

Despite the fact that it's just not very good, Gemini Man marks an historic moment in movie history. We're looking at the future here, folks. With this new technology, actors need no longer retire, and can keep their youthful looks and pump out movie till the day they die. 

Of course they'll never be able to go out in public or appear at an award show, as the public will be appalled to see their wrinkled, liver-spotted faces. But hey, there's always a trade off.

Now that I think about it, why stop at death? With this tech, Tom Cruise can keep on making Mission: Impossible movies long after he's shaken off his mortal coil. 

Hollywood could even use this technology to create a completely artificial actor! One who never ages,  or fights with his coworkers, or walks off the set in a huff or demands more money. They could whip up the perfect performer and exploit them to their heart's content, with no moral reservations.

There's no doubt in my mind that all of this will eventually come to pass. 

Gemini Man is a vague and underdeveloped throwback, as little or nothing makes any sense. Even worse, for an action movie it's deadly dull, filled with interminable scenes of exposition and people talking. The performances are all over the place as well, as Will Smith phones it in and ends up being out-acted by his CGI doppelganger. The CGI de-aging effects are well done, but ultimately they can't save the film. They had twenty years to make this movie, and this is the best they could do? Oy. I give it an anemic and well deserved C.

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