Give Gemini Man this: In an age of severe studio timidity, it’s a modestly radical piece of experimental mainstream action filmmaking directed by a two-time Oscar-winner and starring Will Smith. But sometimes experiments never rise above novel curiosity—they’re interesting to watch and fun to consider, but they tend to work better if they’re attached to good stories and compelling characters. Ang Lee’s second high-frame-rate (HFR) excursion is intermittently thrilling precisely because of the technology he incorporates that he’s convinced is the future of movie-going. I’m really glad I got to see it in the format Lee intended, but I’m not sure I ever need to see it again—and I can’t imagine it being remotely worthwhile to anyone who decides to skip the HFR experience.
Smith plays Brogan, an elite government assassin who follows the same stoic code that just about every movie hitman does: He’s lethally good at his job but doesn’t have much else in his world. Also, he’s getting older, and he’s decided to walk away from the life before it’s too late. But as he’s about to learn, retirement isn’t easy for guys like him. First, he’s trailed by Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a talented, fresh-faced undercover agent assigned to surveil him. (Although, how talented can she be if he realizes she’s with the government almost immediately?) And then, he barely survives a coordinated strike meant to eliminate any traces of him and Danny. But is it American intelligence tying up loose ends, or a foreign foe hoping to settle an old score? Brogan decides to find out, enlisting Danny and his old Marine pal, Baron (Benedict Wong), as they do a little globetrotting while trying to stay a step ahead of a mysterious assassin who keeps popping up wherever they go.
No points for figuring out that this assassin, named Junior, is also played by Smith, de-aged to appear about 30 years younger. In most films, that would be the most noticeable special effect, but Gemini Man has been shot (by Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe) in 120 frames per second. (A conventional movie is shot at 24 fps.) This higher frame rate means that the images have a hyper-real sheen that can be disorienting. Put less kindly, the film (like Lee’s previous HFR outing, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) looks weird, partly because our eyes aren’t used to this technology. There’s a soap-opera slickness to the glossy visuals. (It’s like when you’re in a sports bar watching a football game on a motion-smoothing TV and then it cuts to commercials, which all seem surreal and vaguely inhuman.)
I saw Gemini Man in 3D and 60 fps—some theaters will offer the film in 120 fps—and I can’t deny that I found the film’s look jarring. But not unlike Billy Lynn’s, Gemini Man’s unreality is part of Lee’s design. If we’ve long been immersed in a blockbuster culture overrun by weightless CG, there’s something almost freeing about this thriller’s complete untethering to the laws of science. Lee incorporates preposterous motorcycle chases and ridiculously elaborate hand-to-hand combat scenes. But the phoniness is, oddly, both mitigated and enhanced by the higher frame rate, which gives the proceedings a vivid, intense peculiarity. As thrown as we are by the unusual frame rate, that’s how discombobulated Brogan is by the realization that he’s being pursued by a killer clone of himself.
Lee has often pushed himself into new terrain, never settling to make the same film twice, taking risks with genres that might seem outside his comfort zone. His Hulk predated much of the superhero mania, unsuccessfully trying to graft brooding psychological themes onto a comic-book movie. His track record may be inconsistent, but anyone willing to take on The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is clearly a director up for any challenge. Billy Lynn’s was an uneven but fascinating effort—the higher frame rate underlined the main character’s disillusionment about coming home after being on the front line—and Gemini Man largely improves on the previous film’s technical limitations. (This time around, there are no disastrously eerie close-ups, no clear indications that the actors are wearing makeup.) Plus, this is one of Lee’s most purely pleasurable films—where his movies are normally sobering and thought-provoking, Gemini Man feels playful and loose, a respected auteur’s lighthearted stab at a Jason Bourne flick.
Unfortunately, Gemini Man is saddled with a fatally weak story, almost as if Lee chose a predictable action-thriller narrative so that he could focus his energy on the effects and frame rate. But the result is a quirky-looking movie that’s generally boring. And while the higher frame rate adds dynamism to action sequences, it continues to flatten performances. Smith is one of our most consistently engaging movie stars, but even he can’t quite escape the general awkwardness that comes across from the ensemble. And to be clear, I don’t think it’s the performance itself; I think it’s the way it hits our eyes that’s faulty. Perhaps it’s because of our association with bad acting in soap operas, but Gemini Man’s hyper-sharp images bring out the inherent artificiality of performance, the make-believe quality of playing a role. Like sticking a fisheye lens on the camera, the higher frame rate distorts the very humanness of acting. And as a consequence, we fail to establish any sort of bond with the characters, one of the most crucial components of any viewing experience.
There’s delight to be had in watching two generations of Will Smiths fight each other, but Gemini Man can’t shake a hand-me-down familiarity. Whether it’s a surface kinship to Looper—another movie about a hitman at literal war with himself—or the movie’s allusions to Terminator 2: Judgment Day and First Blood, Gemini Man is dramatically generic. (Clive Owen plays the head of a shady government operation—the actor’s casting automatically suggests what the character’s arc will be.) It would be a mistake to dismiss Gemini Man out of hand—the early talkies were pretty ungainly, too—and there are certain moments when the film is giddy in its visual audacity and sense of discovery. But too much of Lee’s experiment feels like a feature-length demo reel, a first draft of a technology that still needs to go through several revisions. One day, we may look back at Gemini Man as the beginning of a new era. Right now, though, it doesn’t do enough right with the age-old filmmaking elements we’ve spent a lifetime loving.
Writers: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke (screenplay); Darren Lemke, David Benioff (story)
Starring: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong
Release Date: October 11, 2019
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.