Movie reviews: ‘Gemini Man‘ feels like a slick direct-to-DVD action film

GEMINI MAN: 2 STARS

“Gemini Man,” a glossy new action-thriller starring Will Smith, feels like a cinematic stew of ideas lifted from other movies. Mix and match “Looper” and “Replicant” with a dash of “Deadpool” and “Unforgiven” and you have a film with that feels like a mild case of déjà vu.

Smith plays highly trained government sniper Henry Brogan. When we first meet him, he’s on a mission to assassinate a bio-terrorist from a perch two kilometers away. He aims, blasts his target, who happens to be travelling on a train at over 200 km/h, through the neck, completing the job as assigned. It’s a spectacular shot but Brogan doesn’t feel great about it. “There was a girl,” he says, “a beautiful little girl next to him. If I was six inches off…” After 72 confirmed kills he feels it’s time to hang up his guns. “Deep down my soul is hurt,” he says. “I need peace.”

Trouble is he knows too much. Retiring means he is a loose end and his Defense Intelligence Agency bosses, Clay Verris (Clive Owen) and Janet Lassiter (Linda Emond), don’t like loose ends. He must be controlled or killed. “Mutts like Henry were born to be collateral damage,” Verris sneers. First they send newbie Agent Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to keep an eye on him. When that doesn’t work, a hit-squad is dispatched. When Brogan dispatches the squad the international adventure begins.

With Zakarweski and ace pilot Baron (Benedict Wong) in tow, Brogan blows through his air mile points, travelling to Cartagena, Colombia, Budapest, Hungary and Savannah, Georgia. They’re on the run from a new breed of soldier sent by Verris, a weaponized human who makes the mission personal for Brogan.

SPOILERS AHEAD…

There is no way to discuss the plot of “Gemini Man” without giving away a major plotline. It’s a not a secret but let’s just pretend you didn’t hear it from me: the weaponized human is Brogan’s clone, complete with the skill set but without most of the annoying human traits like fear and pain. Playing the clone is a de-aged Smith and while it is fun to see a cocky, spry version of him on the big screen, the young Smith often looks like a digital echo of the real thing. It’s all fun and games when the two are doing battle in any number of director Ang Lee’s frenetically staged action scenes but when their relationship becomes an emotional mano a mano the limitations of the digital imitation become obvious and distracting.

Shooting in 60 frames per second and in 3D, Lee fills the screen with hyper-realistic images that seem to pop off the screen. Shrapnel cascades into the audience and a gravity defying ninja hop scotches across the screen to great effect, but for my money, the digital imagery treatment doesn’t have the warmth of film. It feels hard-edged and stark, like old-school video tape, which works well in the action scenes—motorcycle chase in Columbia is breathtaking—but less so in the more intimate moments.

“Gemini Man” will likely garner more attention for its startling look than for its content. An olio of clone and one-last-job movies it feels out of date, like a slick looking relic from the age of direct to DVD action movies.

LUCY IN THE SKY: 1 STAR

“Lucy in the Sky” is the only movie I can think of that would have been improved by the addition of adult diapers. Loosely based on the exploits of former naval flight officer turned NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, the new Natalie Portman movie recreates the troubled astronaut’s cross-country drive minus one juicy detail—the diapers she allegedly wore to eliminate the need for rest stops.

Portman plays Lucy Cola, an astronaut having trouble adapting to life on terra firma. After being in space, witnessing the vastness of the world while floating far above it, her eager-to-please husband (Dan Stevens) and teenage niece Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) seem hopelessly earthbound. “You go up to space and see the whole universe,” she says, “and then you come back and everything is so small. What are you supposed to do? Go to Applebee‘s?”

She finds a kindred soul in Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), another NASA vet described as “a divorced action figure who likes to go fast.” Casual chats soon turn into an affair, although while Lucy falls deeply head over heels, Mark sees it as a fling and continues to date other women, including new recruit Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz).

As her mental state erodes, Lucy throws herself into training for a new mission until she becomes a danger to herself and others. Cut loose from the only job she cares about, the frantic Lucy drives cross country to confront—or worse—Goodwin. “You’re going to lose,” she shouts, “because I’m a winner.”

“Lucy in the Sky” is a character driven drama that offers up only the scantest insight into Lucy’s psychosis. Director Noah Hawley plays around visually, changing the aspect ratio and focus to convey Lucy’s loosened grip on reality but it is all surface and while there are some striking images, the insight never transcends cliché.

Portman isn’t given much to work with. She’s a walking cliché, a character who ticks a number of “interesting” traits off a checklist only to have them add up to a less than compelling character. She isn’t aided by a script that requires her to say things like “All systems go!” when asked about her mental state.

The supporting actors don’t fare much better. As Lucy’s husband Stevens is a one note goody two-shoes, annoying to the point where you begin to understand why she wandered away from the marriage. Ellen Burstyn is a bit of fun as Lucy’s potty-mouth mother, but she seems to have drifted in from another movie. Only Hamm emerges more or less unscathed, handing in the kind of tortured leading man performance that allows him to have moments of introspection, like when he watches footage of the Challenger explosion over-and-over before heading to space, and be a bit of a playboy. There’s not much to his character but at least Hamm breathes some life into him.

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The story that inspired the film is ripped straight from the tabloids, all lurid details, but “Lucy in the Sky” glosses over most of them (i.e.: the adult diapers) in favor of an oversimplified look at mental illness that never takes flight.

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME: 4 STARS

Rudy Ray Moore may be the most influential entertainer who is not exactly a household name. The actor, comedian, musician, singer and film producer is best known under his stage name Dolemite, his motor-mouthed pimp persona from the 1975 film “Dolemite.” Featuring a mix of clumsy kung-fu action, flashy clothes and sexually explicit dialogue and action, it has a well-earned reputation as one of the best bad movies ever made.

No one will ever confuse the “Dolemite” movie or its sequels “The Human Tornado” and “The Return of Dolemite” with great art, but the character, vividly brought to life by Eddie Murphy in the new biopic “Dolemite is My Name,” was a trailblazer. His vocal delivery, a blend of braggadocio and raunchy rhymes, was a direct influence on hip hop pioneers like Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes and 2 Live Crew, setting the template for a generation of rappers.

The new film, directed by “Hustle and Flow’s” Craig Brewer, is the story of how Moore became Dolemite but it’s also about an outsider who created his own path to stardom. Like “The Disaster Artist” or “Ed Wood” it’s about the power of a person to make their dreams come true.

When we first meet Moore he’s assistant managing Dolphin’s of Hollywood one of the first African American owned record stores in Los Angeles by day and flopping as an MC in the clubs by night. He’s what they called an all-in-one-act. He sings, dances and tells corny jokes that start with lines like, “What did the Elephant say to the man?”

It isn’t until he finds inspiration in the tall tales told by Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones), a homeless man who hangs around the shop. “I ain’t no hobo,” he announces. “I am a repository of African American folklore.” Ricco tells hilarious stories of the "baddest" man "who ever lived, Dolemite,” giving Moore just what he needs, an act like no one has ever seen before. Dolemite, complete with rhyming street poetry, wild 70s fashion and enough obscenity to make Lenny Bruce blush, is an instant hit. Audiences love it and soon Moore is making raunchy, self-produced records that hit the Billboard charts despite having to be sold under-the-counter because of their filthy covers and subject matter.

The inspiration to bring Dolemite to the big screen comes after Moore and friends take in a screening of Billy Wilder‘s 1974 comedy “The Front Page.” The mostly white audience eats it up, yukking it up throughout while Rudy and his friends stare at the screen, stone faced. "That movie had no funny… and no kung fu,” he says. “The stuff people like us want to see.” He hires D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) and playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) and self-finances a movie about a pimp who takes revenge on the criminals and corrupt police officers who framed him. The result is a playful, over-the-top jumble of kung-fu fighting, low-rent action and sexy, sexy good times that becomes a word-of-mouth hit. “All my life I’ve wanted to be famous,” Rudy says, “but this is more important. This is about connecting with people.”

“Dolemite is My Name” is a simple, very sweet movie about a very raunchy man. An inspirational story of outsiders who find an on ramp into the show biz life nobody else would offer them. It’s the tale of an independent man who doesn’t see problems, only solutions.

Murphy plays Moore with plenty of heart. It’s a live wire performance that brings to life the indefatigable spirit of a guy who thought big. “I want the world to know I exist,” he says, not only for himself but for his under-represented community.

“Dolemite is My Name,” from its wild costumes by Oscar-winning designer Ruth E. Carter, to the fun performances from Murphy, Snipes, Chris Rock, Keegan-Michael Key, Snoop Dogg, Craig Robinson and Da‘Vine Joy Randolph in supporting roles, to the music and the comedy to the evocation of the 1970s, is an entertaining and heartening story of a life lived large.

LUCKY DAY: 2 ½ STARS

I suppose enough time has elapsed so that a film like “Lucky Day” can no longer be seen simply as a Quentin Tarantino rip off but can now be regarded as a homage to the crime movies of the 1990s, especially when it is directed by Roger Avary, the co-writer of “Pulp Fiction.”

The film takes place during one eventful and bloody day. It begins with Red (Luke Bracey), a safecracker with an artist wife Chloe (Nina Dobrev) and adorable daughter Beatrice (Ella Ryan Quinn), finishing up a two-year jail sentence for a heist gone wrong. As low lives go he’s a decent sort. He’s a just a guy who robbed a bank and skimmed half a million bucks to look after his family.

Luc (Crispin Glover) doesn’t quite see it that way. He’s a hitman for a crime cartel called The Connection. “I’m in the retirement business,” he tells border security in his outrageous and completely fake French accent. He’s come to California to “retire.” Seems Luc’s brother was part of Red’s team but was killed in action and now the faux Frenchman has come to exact his revenge.

“Pulp Fiction,” for better and for worse, inspired a slew of imitators complete with over-the-top violence, groovy yet quirky soundtracks, old-school details and unusual characters. And don’t forget the irreverent, edgy and politically incorrect dialogue.

“Lucky Day” falls firmly into the pretend “Pulp Fiction” category.

It’s a movie with all the bits and pieces of the Tarantino classic but with a tenth of the impact. To be fair, Avary pulls charming performances from the cast, crafting the kind of eccentric, cartoonish characters that fuel these kinds of films but nothing really connects. From start to finish you know who will survive and who won’t so the stakes never seem very high even when Luc has nice people in the crosshairs of his gun.

In “Lucky Day” Avary has made a buoyant, if predictable thriller, efficiently told, with some laughs and a gallon or 10 of blood to paint the screen. It’s not “Pulp Fiction” but then again, what is?

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