By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
From “Sense and Sensibility” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s choice of movie genres runs the gamut, yet what makes him successful is his ability to probe deep emotions—and his insistence upon stunning visuals. Both of these are present in Lee’s latest endeavor, “Gemini Man,” starring Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Clive Owen.
For “Gemini Man,” Lee teamed up again with Bill Westenhofer, the man who brought us the CG tiger in “Life of Pi,” and a team of several hundred artists, to explore the concept of cloning and create a computerized “clone.” In the movie, hitman Henry Brogan, played by Smith, finds himself on the other end of the gun—and the person sent to kill him is his younger self. As the villain Clay Verris, played by Owen, says, this clone has all of Henry’s good traits, and none of the bad. Henry, on the other hand, is appalled, not to mention worried for his life. This kid, called “Junior,” is as good as him— and Henry’s the best. Henry and his friends and fellow assassins, including a resourceful character played by Benedict Wong—who conjures up an airplane—rally to figure everything out.
What’s getting the most hype surrounding the movie is the technology. So much so that, somewhat unusually, Lee and Smith have been promoting the film at tech venues, such as TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, and what was touted as an “outside-in fireside chat” at our very own Microsoft campus in Redmond. The attention-getter is the clone.
“It’s not a ‘de-aged’ Will Smith,” enthused Smith at TechCrunch Disrupt. “It is actually a 100% digital character, and the possibilities of that got me really excited.” In an interview with the Northwest Asian Weekly, Lee explained, “I was pursuing a new media. To find an aesthetic of what I believe digital cinema can provide, and immerse it with clarity.”
It’s fitting that what you might call digital cloning technology was used for a movie about cloning—and Lee is not kidding about the clarity. The movie, intended for 3D viewing, is gorgeous visually. Lee and his team shot the film in ultrahigh resolution, with an ultrahigh frame rate. Under such camera conditions, anything out of place would stand out. They had to be sure the clone looked convincing.
“The hardest thing is Junior,” said Lee. “Can you make it believable? Physically pretending something doesn’t satisfy such media. [Thus] search for digital help. So creating Junior from scratch, how do you apply true emotion? How do you wrap it with the story so people will buy into it? That’s a big step.”
It’s a mind-bending concept that physical reality does not look real enough when filming a movie, so we use technology to fill in the gaps. The effect in “Gemini Man” is beautiful, and not just the clone or the action scenes. Water vistas are breathtaking. Colors are crisp and clear. Everything is shiny like after a rain. In fact, there is a theme of reflection symbolized by water and ingenious use of mirrors. The clone is a mirror of Henry. Henry doesn’t like to look in mirror because he sees all the killing he’s done.
The characters gauge targets by looking in car mirrors. Mirrors are made by puddles on the street, reflecting the person chasing you.
A lot of these visual treats take place at high speed and during the fight scenes, which are just to my taste. I like to see what’s happening and this movie delivers. The fights, choreographed by Filipino American actor, stuntman, and fighter Jeremy Marinas, are very natural. You can identify every move, and yet this does not slow the fights down. Much is being made of Henry and Junior using their motorcycles as weapons, but the most impressive part to me is the hand-to-hand combat, which is flashy, gritty, and real. Marinas’ portfolio includes nominations for “The Wolverine” and “Captain America: Civil War.” The film’s producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, is also no stranger to action, with such blockbusters as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Bad Boys.”
It’s a winning team, and there’s a lot going on, visually, yet in typical Lee fashion, the emotional and philosophical layers of the movie are as challenging as the digital effects.
“I’ve been doing self-conflict, shadow self, fate…When we see a clone, we ask the question, how real are we?” Lee told the Asian Weekly. “I was hoping for the pleasure to visualize the internal struggle that you could play out visually with a new media.” Nurture versus nature. The regrets we hold as we grow older. The desire to mentor the next generation. It’s all there.
We asked Lee what he would tell his younger self if he, like Henry, got the chance.
“It’s conflicting,” he replied. “In one way, I would ask him to be more grounded. I was a dreamer. I wasted a lot of time fantasizing. I wish I was more pragmatic, more grounded. I could do better if I made more effort. On the other hand, I’m always worried, [so I would] just tell him, ‘You’re okay. Everybody is doing their best. We all struggle. You can do better. Don’t waste time.’”
The issue of cloning, while ever-present in the movie, is not fully flushed out. There’s a good argument in favor given by the villain, yet I got the impression that, since it’s the villain, we should write it off.
Henry is obviously disgusted that he’s been cloned, and once he finds out, Junior is upset, but there are a lot more issues behind it that aren’t just about them. The preference of the good guys—that cloning is wrong—feels preachy. But this might have more to do with dialogue delivery, which is a bit wooden.
Smith is his usual self, charming and funny, buckling down into the action when necessary, yet everyone else rotates stiffly around him.
What makes “Gemini Man” a breakthrough film, though, is that the sum of its parts is greater than each part alone. Knowing the painstaking level of effort that went into most of those parts makes it a worthwhile watch. While the movie covers familiar ground—the evil government, the desire to create a “super soldier” —the charisma of Smith, the gorgeous camera work and digital sorcery of Lee and team Westenhofer, and the leave-you-breathless fight choreography of Marinas, ensure you won’t feel time passing. “Gemini Man” is a fast, enjoyable, and thought-provoking ride.
Gemini Man opens in theaters nationwide on October 11.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.