In order to understand Gemini Man, you have to understand Ang Lee – or at least try to. The Taiwanese director is a darling of the Hollywood mainstream and an ingenious filmmaker. His career highlights include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; and Life of Pi – highly celebrated films that are nonetheless thought to have gotten a bit of a raw deal.
But those hits, conventional in the context of Lee’s filmography, don’t quite illuminate the profound eccentricity that makes him such a memorable director. Lee has developed a reputation similar to that of M. Night Shyamalan, another idiosyncratic auteur who came of age in an era when studios were willing to take major risks. At least when Lee and Shyamalan were behind the camera, these risks usually paid off: three Ang Lee films have made ten times their budget or more; four Shyamalan films have done the same.
Gemini Man won’t. Maybe in a parallel universe, or the year 2002. It’s an action thriller with a sci-fi strand and a list of global filming locations the Mission: Impossible movies might deem over-elaborate. Will Smith stars – twice – as Henry Brogan and Henry Brogan’s evil clone, Junior, the product of a twisted science experiment/ego trip combo by Clayton Varris (Clive Owen). In Brogan, Smith is doing more acting than he’s done in a few years (hell, it’s the most acting Owen has done in a while too), and it’s his most interesting project since Men in Black 3. (Incidentally, Shyamalan’s 2013 After Earth shepherded in the era of Smith taking unadventurous, largely unexciting roles in films such as Focus and Aladdin, a career phase we may hope to be leaving behind.)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead co-stars as sidekick Danny Zakarweski, with Benedict Wong playing Brogan’s best friend Baron. Both actors do good work in the sort of straightforwardly supporting roles we don’t often see anymore. For this and other reasons, it’s not a huge surprise that the script was first written almost 20 years ago, intended for the late Tony Scott (Top Gun). While that means Gemini Man misses out on the chance for topicality – seemingly an obligation in the action genre for some time –it allows Lee to take full advantage of an assuredly vintage style. Many will wish Gemini Man had been made a decade and a half ago, but the remarkable cocktail of visual effects and high frame rate cameras, together yielding a stunningly immersive viewing experience, might just make it worth the wait. See it in IMAX or don’t see it at all.
Gemini Man isn’t prime Ang Lee and, truth be told, isn’t trying to be. It’s the gratifying result of a brilliant director trying his hand at another blockbuster, with the full dosage of peculiarity he didn’t quite pour into previous studio work like Hulk, but with all the Freudian vigour. For Ang Lee and Will Smith, Gemini Man is a welcome look back – and a hopeful look forward.