Because, well, just because, today we talk about the trouble with twins, with John-Claude van Damme in Double Impact and Will Smith in Gemini Man. Which of the four will win out? Join us and find out!
This 1991 joint reunites John-Claude van Damme, noted kickpunchman and Sheldon Lettich, writer and director of previous JCVD joints like Bloodsport and Lionheart, and a perhaps surprising number of subsequent ones in the wilderness era of JCVDs career. Let’s see if diminishing returns set in early.
After the opening of the Victoria Harbour tunnel in Hong Kong, the part-owner of the construction firm is followed home and killed by a Triad ambush, alongside his wife. However their maid is able to escape with one of the tiny twins, Alex, leaving him to be raised in a HK orphanage run by French nuns. The other, Chad, is whisked to America by bodyguard Frank Avery (Geoffrey Lewis), who raises him to be, ironically enough, something not too dissimilar to the Chads the modern day incells are all angsty about. Both twins are, of course, played by JCVD. As adults. Not babies. Naturally.
Things come to a head twenty-odd years later when Frank has finally tracked down Alex, who appears to be running a mahjong parlour and small time smuggling outfit in Hong Kong, and comes clean to Chad about their tragic family history and their now shared need for vengeance. Off they pop to HK, where the two brothers don’t initially take to each other, and some understandable confusion with Alex’s girlfriend, Alonna Shaw’s Danielle Wilde doesn’t help. This tension will simmer throughout as the B-plot to the affair. Well, I say B-plot. I’ll get to that.
The main order of business is, of course, revenge against the powerful, Triad backed businessman slash drug baron, Alan Scarfe’s Nigel Griffith (screen-writing side note, never name your villain Nigel), his pervy bodyguard, Corinna Everson’s Kara, and them there Triad goons, main threat of course being the imposing Bolo Yeung’s Moon. And I don’t think I’m being too unfair to say there’s not a great deal more to the plot than that, basically alternating action sequences and some scenes of fratricidal bickering before settling their differences for the final assault on, of all things, a cargo ship,
So, there’s not really an A-plot and and B-plot here, it’s all C-plot, perfunctory at best, to the point that even if you were the type to excuse this on genre grounds, this still isn’t going to be a classic. But, those action sequences, I have to say, I’m quite fond of. It’s not genre defining or anything, but they’re solidly handled. JCVD knows how to kick people, and there’s a few quite stylish captures of said kicking.
There’s a touch more gunplay in here than in the previously mentioned JCVD / Lettich team ups, and fittingly enough given the location it seems he’s borrowed heavily from the John Woo / Heroic Bloodshed style of pistols akimbo diving and rolling. Not a patch on the master, of course, but it’s all perfectly serviceable.
The technology of the time didn’t allow for an awful lot of technical trickery, and the composite shots of the two JCVDs used here I think have suffered somewhat in the transition to HD, as they don’t look great. On the positive side, said lack of technical trickery has made for much more convincing action scenes, so that’s nice. More on that in our next film.
As for the whole “portraying two different characters thing”, while no-one’s putting him forward for an Oscar, JCVD is doing what he needs to do here. Alex lets him explore a somewhat more villainous, or at least morally flexible character than we’d seen from him previously, and his initially somewhat goofy Chad persona is also rather more animated than we’d seen from him. Not that he’s a revelation – Alex’s drunken throes of angst borders on laughable – but he does enough to show here a bit more flexible as an actor, albeit still not as flexible as his body.
Double Impact is very dated, of course, and while they just don’t make action movies like this these days, they did, however, make a metric tonne of them like this back in the late eighties to early nineties, and while I enjoyed this quite a lot, it’s still right in the middle of a crowded pack. That makes it a little difficult to recommend pulling this film, in particular, out of the vault as opposed to, say the John Woo or Bruce Lee joints that this liberally steals from, but if you do happen across it I’d certainly not advise against watching it.
The phrase ”development hell” is almost certainly overused, and whether that’s appropriate for Ang Lee’s Gemini Man is not clear, as “didn’t get made for a while” is not necessarily equivalent to a hellish journey. Objectively, though, the project has been around for 20 years, 30 different lead actors have been attached (from the entirely viable Jason Statham, Tom Cruise and Nic Cage to the “you should probably lay off the coke, and Jerry Bruckheimer isn’t even involved yet” Al Pacino, Sean Connery and Nick Nolte) and has passed through the hands of eight writers, so “bloody mess” is probably a dead cert.
The story is that of Henry Brogan, Will Smith, a hitman with the mad skillz working for the USA’s Defense Intelligence Agency (which I was surprised to find is actually a real thing and not simply created for this film), who decides to retire after his most recent hit doesn’t go as smoothly as he would have liked. His victim in that job was not, as he was told, a terrorist but someone working for the US Government who was being taken care of as a lose end.
After being told this, Henry himself now becomes a lose end, and his assassination is ordered. After the first attempt fails, he flees to Colombia with former colleague Baron, Benedict Wong, and new acquaintance Danny, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a DIA operative initially tasked with tailing Henry and now a further lose end. The matter of Henry’s elimination is now being handled by Clay Verris, Clive Owen, Henry’s former trainer and the head of Gemini, a paramilitary corporation. The hitman he sends after Henry is Clay Junior, his “son”, who is, in fact, a clone of Henry. Well, a clone except for the fact that he’s a moron, and is almost comically uninterested for a good hour of the film in that fact that his target looks and sounds more or less identical to himself.
After discovering Junior’s provenance we’re treated to a number of scenes in which the Fresh Prince and the Slightly Stale Prince fight each other, often in darkly lit environments where it’s difficult to impossible to keep track of who’s who so, y’know, super-worthwhile. There’s some more plot after that, but as it’s largely daddy issues for characters with no actual character and some tepid action sequences, I’ll leave the plot recap there.
Gemini Man is an entertaining enough action thriller, provided you don’t think about it. You will think about it. This will be a mistake. Setting aside the generic, insipid dialogue and underwhelming plot, there are a number of interesting ideas that Gemini Man could have explored, brought about by Verris’s actions, and his stated reasons for them: the morality of cloning and the eugenics he employs; the idea that it’s OK to cause grief in the people murdered in other countries as long as no American family needs to suffer it; paramilitary corporations in general; the fact that his idea is to create a super soldier clone to protect the USA and its “values”, and that the actor playing the man to be cloned is black, with all of the inherent issues that brings with it.
I wouldn’t typically look for such depth in an action film like this, but when it’s directed by Ang Lee I expect quite a bit more, and there’s just nothing there. And the one thing that I would have expected, nay demanded, even the most journeyman of filmmakers to address in a film with this plot is nature vs. nurture. And it does, I guess. And the answer is: it’s all nature. 100%. No nuance. Henry knows 100% of Junior’s experiences and feelings, because they have identical genes. Bloody Double Impact managed it better; a film from the screenwriter of Rambo III and Bloodsport, and co-written by JCVD, at least touches on the fact that its gene-sharing heroes have similar abilities and potential, but different temperaments and personalities.
The problem is that Gemini Man seems more a tech showcase than a film, and that’s because that’s exactly what it is, and what it was conceived as in the 1990s. And given how common CGI characters are now, and how many de-aged stars we’ve seen just in the last couple of years, if that’s your USP then it better be damn flawless. And it just isn’t. To be fair a lot of Weta Digital’s work in the film is pretty good, but sometimes the CGI double (based on motion capture work from Smith) just looks wrong. We’re not talking Peter Cushing in Rogue One bad, but by 2019’s standards it’s often pretty ropey, and not helped by a number of dodgy green screen shots. And some of the action sequences, particularly with the CGI character making quick movements, call to mind Blade II, and not in a good way.
As for Will Smith, he’s a reasonably engaging and charming presence as Henry, but is out of his depth on the few occasions he’s called on to deliver heartfelt emotion, or some of Junior’s angst. Clive Owen, pleased as I am to see him, is largely squandered – his is not a notable villain – and while Winstead and Wong provide solid support, like Owen and Smith they’re not really rounded characters. All told it’s a pretty mediocre experience. Not awful enough to get upset about, but pretty unmemorable.
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