There’s a pivotal point in my cinematic history where a film, “Enemy of the State” so engaged me and disengaged me that I love to hate it. There’s a 1970’s level of paranoia in that film which intrigued me along with the use of technology to move the story forward. And then there’s Will Smith, who exclaims his fear and terror at the top of his then screechy voice. He was just young enough and rambunctious enough that the performance grated on me, but the character was a wonderfully vibrant part of the environment they were aiming for.
Flash forward 21 years now, and we see Will Smith in a similar role in Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man.”
Where “Enemy of the State” is operatic and grand in scale, Lee has toned down his environment in “Gemini Man,” to this film’s benefit. Part of that benefit is seen on the screen in front of us – the economy of character leads way to Lee being able to embrace technology to drive the physicality of the story as well as remaining an impetus for Henry Brogan (Smith).
Over 20 years in the making, Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” is the second film this year from Will Smith, in which he plays a sniper, Henry Brogan. Will Smith is an exceptionally mature individual, someone who is aware of what he does and why he does it. To understand him better is to understand his environment and the people he associates with, something Ang Lee worked very hard on.
Brogan is a sniper, someone who, on orders from our government can commit lethal action from over two miles away. With extreme precision. In spite of the clandestine, lethal action, Brogan is self-aware; he knows that what he does isn’t right and he retires, though that retirement earns him some very unwanted, albeit necessary attention.
The screenplay from Darren Lemke (“Shazam”) and David Benioff (“Brothers”), which sat in “development hell” for nearly 20 years, feels tonally out of place, as it is better suited for the late 90’s early aughts. Yet it is not completely out of touch with society 21 years later, because the morality theme that the story espouses is timeless.
Will Smith is in top form as Brogan. The character’s brash self-awareness plays into the characters he interacts with, namely Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Danny Zakarweski, an attendant at a marina. There is very obviously an age difference and a spark of romance that feels out of sorts. The character grounds Brogan in an effective way that becomes more apparent when Junior appears, a younger more capable and less paranoid version of himself. Clive Owen hams it up as Clay Verris.
I’m not spoiling anything that isn’t already disclosed in the trailers, but the piece d’ resistance of this film is a CGI animated Will Smith in a younger version of himself. Ang Lee worked with Weta Digital to develop a new technology called Deep Shapes, capturing facial expressions that the computer could break down into different layers of skin as they move. The artists went back to Smith from films like “Bad Boys” and “Independence Day” to get the “age” of the character right.
Brogan is also supported by a rather interesting character, Baron a very skilled pilot and a wisecracker if there was ever one, played by Benedict Wong; there is an inherent nobility about the character that helps ease us into the globetrotting that must occur in order for Brogan to solve his dilemma. Baron and Danny help soften the aged Brogan as he defends himself against Junior, knowing that Brogan’s age is a factor, diminishing his senses.
In addition to the CGI creation of Junior, Lee also shot the film in 120fps (Frames per Second) and in native 4K and 3D. The film was not screened for Phoenix critics in that way. I did get a sense of what Lee was aiming for, but without the technology to display the film as close to the way Lee intended, the story doesn’t work as well as it probably should.
The challenge is that in the intervening twenty years, we’ve had stories like “Bourne Legacy” that convey the same themes, though they don’t do it any better nor any worse than “Gemini Man.”
In reference to “Enemy of the State” earlier, Jerry Bruckheimer was a producer on both films. “Gemini Man” is as much a companion to “Enemy of the State” as that film was to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” where each film is rooted in technology to carry the story forward: the era may have changed, but the lies never do. The paranoia exhibited by these earlier characters are carried into this film
“Gemini Man” works specifically because Smith plays to his age, accepting that he isn’t the brash, cocky man he once was; that he is frail and more importantly fallible. The performance reminds me of Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh from “Lethal Weapon,” only Brogan doesn’t utter, “I’m too old for this . . .”