Saturday 19 October 2019

Gemini Man review: Technically futuristic but otherwise curiously retro, incoherent and po-faced

2 stars

Will Smith in Gemini Man
Will Smith in Gemini Man
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

What’s your favourite Will Smith film? Exactly. Although the man from Philadelphia has been famous for almost three decades and starred in more than 20 movies, a surprising number of them have been forgettable.

His affably handsome everyman persona is a bit too all-things-to-all-people to be interesting, and though he’s occasionally shown flashes of emotional depth, Smith has grown increasingly hard to take seriously. It’s harder than usual in Gemini Man, and this time there’s two of him.

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The basic idea for this this sci-fi thriller (a hitman is confronted by a younger, faster clone of himself) has been knocking around since the mid-1990s, and at one point Disney even made a short film designed to show off the special effects they’d use in creating it. Harrison Ford was going to star, or maybe Tom Cruise, or Sly Stallone, or Schwarzenegger or Eastwood. It never got off the ground, mainly because the technology required to make an actor young enough to convincingly play his clone wasn’t available yet.

It is now, which may or may not be good news.

Mr. Smith is Henry Brogan, a grizzled US government agent who has the good manners to feel pangs of remorse for the hundreds of assassinations he’s undertaken. So much so in fact that he decides to call it a day after he successfully takes out a target traveling at high speed on a train from Paris to Amsterdam. The man was a dangerous terrorist, his handler informs him: Henry, happy with this explanation, retires to coastal Georgia to fish, and reminisce.

Not for long. When he’s going fishing one day, he realises that Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman working on the boat jetty, is a government agent, and that he’s being watched. But they become friendly, and after surviving a coordinated assassination attempt, Henry and Danny join forces to find out what’s going on. As he travels to South America and eastern Europe in search of answers, Henry notices he’s being tracked by a hitman so good he always seems to be one step ahead. And when Henry finally corners and confronts the man in a Budapest hot bath, he’s shocked to discover that the assassin looks exactly like he did - 30 years ago.

How can this be? It’s cloning, folks, the work of a sinister government agent called Clay Varris (Clive Owen), who some years ago began overseeing a secret programme aiming to raise a conscienceless army of super-assassins who would tour the world mopping up America’s long list of enemies. As Henry Brogan was their best assassin by far, his DNA was robbed to cook up Junior, Henry’s pursuer, a young man who knows a great deal about killing, but not too much about anything else. 

If all of this sounds a bit 1990s, it seems even more so on a screen. Though Ang Lee directs, he’s unable to blend a slender story idea and frantic CGI trickery into anything resembling a coherent feature film. The best 90s action and sci-fi blockbusters used humour to make themselves more digestible, but Gemini Man is curiously po-faced, its rare attempts at mirth clumsy and telegraphed. A great deal of time and effort has clearly gone into the film’s technical aspects: it was shot at the extra high rate of 120 frames-per-second, which apparently helps with 3D and does create remarkable clarity at times, though with a corresponding deadening effect.

Nothing deader than the eyes of the de-aged Mr. Smith, who looks confused even when he’s supposed to know what he’s talking about. Which is not to be glib about this technically remarkable process, which will shortly be seen at greater length in Martin Scorsese’s Irishman, and of which I’d happily avail. It does look convincing, though not when you get too close and the human face is seen to lack a certain elasticity. This film lacks elasticity in spades, and is not best served by a curiously robotic turn from Will Smith. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is too good an actor for this kind of stuff - let’s hope she was well paid. And Clive Owen, who has come to specialise in playing oily villains of late, does so without apparent relish - no Rickmanesque ho-ho-ho’s for him.

Then again, perhaps it was hard to get excited about this creaky vehicle that might be technically futuristic but is curiously retro in all other respects. If I’d picked Gemini Man up in a video store in the late 1990s I wouldn’t have asked for my money back, but in a cinema, now?

(12A, 117mins)

Also releasing this week:

A Bump Along the Way

4 stars

Bronagh Gallagher is at her salty best in Shelly Love’s touching, funny Derry-based drama about a 40-something single mother who hooks up for a night of passion with a much younger man.

Six weeks later, Pamela discovers she’s pregnant, an inconvenient truth that impresses no one, least of all her socially anxious teenage daughter Allegra (Lola Petticrew).

Pamela has raised Allegra alone, with no help from her bombastic ex-partner, but as she takes on motherhood for the second time, Pam finally starts to assert herself.

It’s nicely done, and Gallagher is superb as the world-weary but not quite defeated mother.

(15A, 95mins)

 

The Day Shall Come

2 stars

A heavyweight of British satire, Chris Morris made his name on such fearsome TV comedies as Brass Eye and The Day Today, and in his 2010 movie Four Lions, poked fun at home-grown jihadis.

The Day Shall Come explores analogous themes, and stars Marchant Davis as Moses Al Shabazz, the harmless leader of a tiny Miami religious cult.

Moses talks big but is really a pacifist and may be mentally ill, but that doesn’t stop an FBI team from deciding he’s a terrorist.

A talented cast that includes Anna Kendrick and Denis O’Hare is largely wasted by this meandering, toothless satire that feels like it’s been heavily edited.

(15A, 88mins)

 

Abominable

3 stars

In this sweet if rather generic animation with a heartwarming central message, an angsty Shanghai teenager finds a Yeti on her apartment roof.

Yi is mourning the recent death of her father, and frantically saving money for a trip across China they’d intended to undertake together, when she discovers a giant white hairy beast cowering on her rooftop.

The Yeti was found by scientists in the high Himalayas, but has escaped from their lab into a bewildering urban environment.

So Yi decides to guide him home, with help from two of her friends. Abominable rattles along nicely, is gracefully animated and should please younger viewers.

(G, 97mins)

 

Bait

5 stars

This archly stylised low-budget psychological drama from Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin is one of the best British movies I’ve seen in a while, and obliquely catches the moral, social and political confusion into which the now ironically-titled United Kingdom has sunk.

After Cornish fisherman Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) is forced to sell his family cottage to nobby Londoners, tensions mount between him and the new owners, leading to tragedy.

Jenkin shot the film on 16mm in black and white, and his urgent, jumpy technique evokes silent cinema and low-budget European arthouse of the early 1960s.

His soundtrack floats eerily free of the image at times, giving Bait a dreamy quality that nicely contrasts with its gritty storyline. It’s a very fine film.

(No Cert, IFI, 89mins)

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