Gemini Man Review: Double the Wills Smith, Five Times the Frames
If an actor sticks around in Hollywood long enough, their most meaningful onscreen relationship isn’t with any of their co-stars. It’s with time itself. Popular actors age, they get older, they shift roles from sons to fathers to grandfathers. They turn gray, they get wrinkles, they remove the wrinkles, they dye their hair. The degree to which they age — or attempt to defy the aging process — becomes an unspoken part of every role.
It’s a spoken, central element of Will Smith’s performance in Gemini Man — both of them. Smith plays two versions of his character, a government assassin named Henry Brogan who’s grown weary of his work and wants to retire. Unfortunately for him and his desire to fish and not do lots of murders, he knows too many state secrets. His employers at the Defense Intelligence Agency decide he needs to be retired in more a permanent fashion and replaced with a clone of himself half his age.
You’ve heard the one about how all stories boil down to one of six different kinds of conflict? And one of those is man versus himself? Well, Gemini Man is reeeeeally man versus himself. So Will Smith, age 51, acts opposite a digital Will Smith, about age 25, looking much like he did during his time on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air thanks to motion capture technology. For the most part, the effect is convincing — more convincing at times than the similar tricks used in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. It needs to be, because director Ang Lee shot Gemini Man at 120 frames per second, a format that produces bright, crystal clear images with minimal blurring, even at significant distances.
Lee has already made another movie in high frame rate, and seems to have a solid handle on how to use it to his advantage. “HFR” makes water and cityscapes look spectacular, and Gemini Man has plenty of both. And it makes action scenes even more visceral, especially ones that utilize long takes to allow for a lot of movement through the frame towards and away from the camera. There’s a long take of Smith’s character riding a motorcycle in Colombia that will go down in history as one of the coolest bike stunts ever. (Despite a resume that includes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee is rarely ranked among the top action directors in the field. Gemini Man should help fix that.)
From Colombia, the film jumps to Eastern Europe and back to America. The globetrotting helps offset the nagging feeling that the world of Gemini Man is completely empty except for the six famous people in the cast. They include Clive Owen as the evil military contractor Henry used to work for, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an agent assigned to shadow Henry in retirement, and Benedict Wong as an old war buddy and plot device whose abilities as a pilot enable those changes of scenery after every action sequence.
The other characters are window dressing, though. This really is The Wills Smith Show. He’s very good in both roles, and brings a lot of emotion to a story that’s a little familiar and sometimes sillier than it intends to be. Lee is a Serious Director, occasionally to a fault, so Smith’s comedic gifts are mostly wasted as he plays Henry as a stoic, regretful man confronted, in the form of his younger self, by all of those choices he now regrets. The hows and what ifs of cloning technology are largely ignored so the script (by David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke) can instead consider the Henrys on more physical and philosophical levels, each of which informs the other in this case. After all, who wouldn’t want to punch their younger self in the face?
Smith is still a strikingly handsome man, but seeing him stand next to his younger self (or the best approximation visual effects can buy) reminds us how long he’s been a part of our moviegoing lives. (In almost any other movie Winstead and Smith’s characters would have a more romantic relationship, but acknowledging Smiths age onscreen seems to take that option off the table.) Early in Gemini Man, Henry says he has trouble looking in mirrors lately, and throughout the movie not only are mirrors a frequent motif, but they’re often shown getting shot at or blown up or bounced around by grenades. The notion of a dangerous mirror image is an obvious one in a film like Gemini Man, but a welcome one nonetheless. None of is going to know what it’s like to get kicked in the head by a motorcycle-riding clone, but we all know what it’s like to look in the mirror and be displeased with what we see looking back at us.
-There are several nods to Will Smith’s past in the character of Henry Brogan. As his beat-up baseball cat indicates, he’s Philadelphia born and raised. (It is not made clear whether the playground is where he spent most of his days.)
-One of the less desirable side effects of 120 frames per second is that it makes everything clear — including product placement. There are a ton of sodas and beers in this movie, and all their labels are clear as day at 120 fps. Audiences may reject 120 fps, but it’s definitely a hit with brands.
-I was shown the film in 3D at 120 frames per second. It looked impressive; and significantly more appealing than the HFR looked in The Hobbit a few years ago. Whether it’s worth traveling any significant distance for it (since only select theaters are showing Gemini Man in HFR), or paying upwards of $25 a ticket for a seat, is debatable.
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