IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 117 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Ex-government assassin Henry Brogan goes into retirement, but he just can’t seem to escape his past. First of all, old friend Jack Willis comes to visit and tells him that an informant named Yuri told him that the last man he killed was merely a scientist not a terrorist. And then local boat manager Dani Zakarweski turns out to be an agent sent to keep an eye on him. In retaliation for Henry knowing their deception, his former agency boss Janet Lassiter gives orders to hunt him down and kill him. When this doesn’t go too well, Lassiter’s colleague Clay Verris executes something called ‘Gemini’, something that involves a younger version of Brogan…
I suppose I should begin this review by saying that I didn’t attend a screening in this Higher Frame Rate that director Ang Lee seems to think is the bee’s knees even though neither cinemas nor the paying public seem to be that interested. I travel out of town often enough to see movies, and prefer to reserve the price of a train ticket for more ‘arty’ fare that isn’t shown in either of my two local multiplexes – though talking of ‘arty’, I reckon that some are wondering why a filmmaker like Lee is bothering with what looks like a rather low-rent Terminator imitation going by the trailers. But then I’ve never had a problem with so-called ‘serious’ filmmakers trying to go ‘commercial’ – the results can be interesting. Lee’s Hulk didn’t work in many ways, but I think you’ll agree with me that it was certainly interesting, even if you may not agree with my preference for it over much of the rather directorially anonymous Marvel fare that followed [don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Martin Scorsese here]. Apparently Lee really wanted to use the HFR on a drama, but then decided to go for something that would hopefully have much wider appeal so he could show off the format to more people. This hasn’t really worked judging by the movie’s reception, and I must say that even I expected the worst. That trailer didn’t really sell it, did it?
But in fact it’s a bit better than one might be led to expect, even if it seems like it belongs in the ‘90s. In fact the first version of the script was all set to be directed in 1997 by Tony Scott for Disney, with [take a deep breath] Harrison Ford, Chris O’Donnell, Mel Gibson, Jon Voight, Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Sean Connery all attached to the lead role for a while. The film would have seemed very timely back then, what with all the fears about cloning largely set off by the creation of an entirely cloned sheep named Dolly. But now – well, the issue is still with us – but far more pressing concerns seem at hand. And, despite many rewrites of the script having happened between 1997 and 2016, the film still feels curiously dated, and I don’t mean in a good way where, if you’re old enough, you’re made to feel nostalgic and maybe even think of all the ways in which movies were better then – something that I often fall victim to. I mean more that, for example, it seems to give the impression that its mostly tried and tested plot turns are fresh and original and that you’ll be actually be surprised by some of them. We do get hints that things are going to have a fresh spin on them and/or be explored more deeply, but this only occasionally happens. One can almost imagine many connected with the film including Lee saying, “these commoners roasted Hulk, got to keep it simple.”
But if you try your best to ignore all that, we’re still left with a reasonable action thriller that’s pacy, has one of Will Smith’s best performances in years, and doesn’t do badly by its other technical gimmick. It begins well as Smith’s aging [he’s 51, but likes to tell people he’s 50, something I’ll probably find myself doing quite soon] government assassin is sent on a mission to kill an anonymous terrorist aboard a bullet train. He’s so incredibly good that he can hit a target on a moving train from standing hundreds of feet away. Okay then. During the mission, Henry’s spotter warns him of a young girl approaching the target, causing Henry to delay his shot until the last second, shooting the man in the neck despite aiming for his head. I would imagine that Henry has encountered this kind of thing several times before, but nonetheless we seem to be led to believe that this is instrumental in Henry retiring from his career. All he wants to now do is be on his own and fish, but the world just won’t leave him alone. You know that it won’t be long before he awakes to find black-clad folk running around outside his house, but he luckily finds that he still has his old skills and begins to hop from country to country [oh for powerful friends with limitless resources] with Dani an agent sent to spy on him whom he identifies as one within a few seconds of first meeting her, and ex-colleague Baron, with loads of black ops on his trail. Despite there only occasionally being some ‘shakycam’, It’s all a bit Bourne, with no suggestions of the sci-fi elements that will later come into place, and for a while I wondered if it was going to be a mistake to introduce them. And it would certainly have been more interesting if we’d learned what the folk at the DIA and Gemini were up to and why a bit later on. In fact, saying that, I’m still not entirely clear on all of this. Deliberate obscuring or lazy writing? It’s hard to decide.
‘Normal’ humans aren’t doing the job, so Clay sends his top assassin Jackson to kill Brogan, and I couldn’t understand for the life of me how we’re later told how this guy is really clever yet he somehow didn’t notice that the person he’s been ordered to kill [surely he must have been shown photographs?] looks just like an older version of him. Now that is lazy writing, no mistake there! But now we get the film’s action highlight, a cracking motorcycle chase that’s shot with some lovely long takes and which climaxes with the two participants employing their vehicles as weapons. While those with keen eyes will notice stunt double’s faces, only a seriously terrible looking shot of a CG bike flying across the screen threatens to ruin the magic. What the hell was wrong with throwing a real bike across the screen?! This kind of thing is getting ridiculous. Anyway, the guy trying to kill Clay is revealed to be Clay’s adopted “son” Junior, but how could this be seeing as Henry claims that he’s never had a child? Even if you haven’t seen the trailer you probably already know and therefore also won’t be surprised by further developments. While it’s down to good guys versus bad guys as usual, there’s an emphasis on Jackson, the clone who may or may not develop some real humanity, and therefore affect the outcome of things one way or another. We’re asked to ponder on the nature of clones, and how we should regard them. Seeing as films have been dealing with this kind of thing since [and possibly even before] 1973’s – ahem – The Clones, this isn’t in any way shape or form earth shattering, but the fact that one feels much compassion for the seriously confused Jackson does give Gemini Man some kind of soul, a thing that’s not always present in your big budget blockbuster today. And you can certainly place it well within Lee’s ourvre seeing as it looks at several subjects, from family relationships to nature versus nature, that are clearly of interest to him.
Clive Owen’s Frankenstein-like character is required to deliver the lion’s share of exposition which could more fruitfully have been shared more with other characters, but is also allowed to deliver some of the best quips, like, “It’s like watching the Hindenburg crash into the Titanic,” after realising that permanently silencing Brogan is not going to be easy. The bits of humour do usually work quite well and don’t intrude. Those expecting things to evolve into full-on spectacle during the climax may be disappointed, and it really doesn’t help that the battle between human and clone takes place in near darkness, partly ruining what should have been another high point. But Lee shows himself to be pretty good at staging a more realistic, dirtier kind of fighting than we saw in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even if he overdoes the cuts in places. And Smith plays his very cliched character very well, as does Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the agent who’s almost as good as him in a tight spot. Unfortunately this is yet again another film which seems afraid to have its two main protagonists have a romance or even a final kiss [god how I miss those!] even if early scenes seem to set one up. Some thing that I really expected to moan about was the visual effects employed to present a young Will Smith – but by and large they actually impress, right from the introduction of Jackson as the camera circles from the back of his neck round to his face. Like the tiger in Life Of Pi was the most convincing CG animal to that date, here you can also only marvel at what has been achieved, for the most part. While I would have personally preferred that they had just doubled Smith and de-aged his face [which wouldn’t have required a lot, he hasn’t changed much] rather than having an entirely digital person, it usually does look the young Smith is in front of you, even though they seem to have given him new cheek bones. I emphasise “for the most part” and “usually”, because there are a few shots where the mouth may give some viewers nightmares of Henry Cavill. But things only really fall apart in this respect in the final scene that must have been a hurried re-shoot, judging by the way Jackson is ever so slightly blurry and his facial features just slightly cartoony. And unfortunately his voice always sounds ADR’d.
Sadly Lorna Balfe’s thoroughly bland [unsurprisingly so for this composer] does little more than run through many of the usual Remote Control musical devices like chugga-chugga ostinatos and tediously predictable chords and chord progressions. And it is undeniably frustrating how there are signs of a very philosophical and complex movie throughout, almost as if they did indeed film the scenes but then decided to gut the film to make it as palatable as possible for general audiences. I kept thinking of how the story from a different viewpoint might have resulted in something smarter. Imagine if we’d had Jackson becoming more suspicious about the whole Gemini thing and this Verris fella turning up claiming to be his adoptive father. He’d start putting things together and the whole movie would become more about how the two versions of one person reach out to each other, and slowly emerge from their past isolation and into a voyage of self-discovery. But there’s still just about enough in what we have to make for an okay time at the pictures, and I hope that Lee isn’t too ashamed of it in later years.