'Gemini Man' Is the Most Kick-Ass Will Smith Movie in Years
You've seen Gemini Man before. What I mean is, the story of Gemini Man feels familiar because the two-decades-old script had been bouncing around Hollywood since before one of the original writers, David Benioff, had ever caught a whiff of Game of Thrones, and it still retains that air of confidence and simplicity. It feels like a classic action-adventure movie because, in part, it is -- what makes it new is all the technology that finally managed to catch up with it.
Gemini Man -- one of our Best Action Movies of 2019, and now on Amazon Prime -- casts Will Smith as two characters: Henry Brogan, the older, wiser former assassin who just wants to spend the rest of his days in a sleepy fishing village, and Junior, the younger clone of himself who spends the movie trying to hunt him down and kill him after their assassin agency turns against him. The whole point of the movie is to have two versions of the same actor, an old one and a young one, who both look like they're really punching and kicking and yelling at each other, and thank god it was delayed for so long. There is no moment in which this movie would have looked as good as it does right now.
Truly, Gemini Man looks amazing. This is not director Ang Lee's first foray into the world of high frame rates -- that is, movies shot and presented with a frame rate higher than the standard 24 frames per second. That's as many still images as our eyes need to see all at once in order to read them as continuous motion, but, for people like Lee, that's just not enough anymore. Three years ago, Lee brought us Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which takes us through the day US Army specialist Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers appear on TV during the halftime show of the 2004 Thanksgiving football game. Hailed as heroes after a firefight in Iraq was caught on camera, the group of soldiers are put into the Hunger Games-y situation onstage, while lights flicker and fireworks go off, knowing that, once the game is over, it's back to their tour of duty.
Many critics who saw it praised the visuals while also remarking on how strange it all felt to watch this particular frame rate onscreen. Billy Lynn, like Gemini Man, was shot in 120 frames per second, the speed used in regular movies to provide a clear picture in extra slow-motion. Compared to 24 frames, even the thought of seeing something at 120fps sounds preposterous, and the look of it does take some getting used to. The best way to describe how it looks is "too real," which is remarkably hard to explain, but, in an action movie, it actually works well once your eyes acclimate.
High frame rates are tricky to work with, mostly because barely anyone does it. Why go to all the trouble when we humans are perfectly happy with just a fraction of that? Reports of dizziness and headaches plagued the first couple of weeks of release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2012, which was shot in 48fps and projected in 3D. The highest frame rate you might encounter regularly is 60fps, which is often used to give video games an extra-clear picture, since you want to be able to see everything you can possibly see around you. But twice that?? For a movie?? In 3D?? I mean, come on. I am very migraine-prone, so I was a little worried going in that I would have similar issues.
Gemini Man is Ang Lee's second film shot and projected in 120fps, but it should have been his first. Billy Lynn suffered from the same initial press as The Hobbit. People complained of headaches and feeling disoriented -- the latter, considering the film's intense, unsettling subject matter, was kind of the point. Because our eyes aren't used to taking in such an overwhelming amount of information, we need time to adjust, and Gemini Man perfectly sets that up in its first few scenes. The first action you see is a short scene of a hitman targeting a man on a moving train, which, save for one cheeky fisheye shot that pumps the 3D for all it's worth, is presented in a familiar way. It's the kind of thing we'd see in a Bond or a Mission: Impossible movie.
It's not until later, when the real action setpieces come in, that the movie shines. There's a rooftop shootout in Colombia, a motorcycle chase down the tightest city streets I've ever seen, an all-out brawl in skull-lined catacombs lit only by the flashlight attached to a gun. Everything you see is so clear and so bright it -- genuinely, no hyperbole -- feels like you're right there watching it. You can see the benefits of the frame rate especially in the pans: whenever the camera moves, there's absolutely none of that pesky blur that can ruin an action scene. What's wonderful about Gemini Man is that Lee and his enormous team of animators want us to see the artistry and the work behind the new version of young Will Smith they've created. No one's face is ever obscured for a quick stuntman switch or cheat during a fight scene -- the kind of trick a movie with lesser effects definitely would have done. Lee shoots a lot of this movie in the daytime, or in well-lit sets that show off every shot you see.
I do kind of wish that I was able to watch this movie again in 2D, in standard definition, without all the effects, to see if the story actually measures up to all the technological breakthroughs that are selling it. Even with all the flashy stuff, though, Will Smith reminds us how much of a star he is, tonally switching between his gruff, older persona and his younger, fiery, more emotional one. The rest of the cast are given their due as well: Clive Owen is the perfect ivory tower villain, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an action heroine who can hold her own with the beefiest of them, and Benedict Wong is delightfully funny. Amidst all of this debate about movie theater versus streaming experiences, Gemini Man is truly an event film, the technology a showcase for the story, with no aspect outshining the other. Like Avatar, this is the kind of thing 3D was made for: a rip-roaring, visually sumptuous good time that brings all of the genre's flaws and cheats and tricks into the light and corrects them one by one.