As they get older and see the long arc of their career stretching out behind them, many great directors make movies about obsolescence, expressing their fear of getting left behind in a changing world. Martin Scorsese just made one; so did Tim Burton and Clint Eastwood. And now it’s the two-time Oscar winner Ang Lee’s turn. His latest Hollywood foray is Gemini Man, a splendidly bizarre piece of action filmmaking that encourages coming to terms with one’s age, even as its advanced high-frame-rate technology makes it look like a surreal vision of an eerily crisp future. Lee is innovating and looking backwards at the same time, and the viewing experience is as bewildering as that sounds.
The script for Gemini Man, which has bounced around Hollywood since the late ’90s, has a fairly elemental concept: What if a hit man had to go up against a cloned younger version of himself? Credited to David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke, the screenplay is a rudimentary distillation of that idea, with dialogue that could best be described as “workmanlike” and plotting that is mostly beside the point. The hero is Henry Brogan (played by Will Smith), a 51-year-old government assassin who decides to retire when he feels his skills slipping. He stumbles into a conspiracy and finds himself in the crosshairs of Clay Verris (Clive Owen), whom he must battle with the help of a couple of sidekicks (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong). But the real star is Junior, a crack military operative in his early 20s also played, with the assistance of advanced CGI, by Smith. He’s a clone of Henry that Clay has created to be the ultimate dealer of death.
The film just about pulls off the magic trick of Junior, who—save for a bit of rubbery computerized sheen—basically looks like Smith as he might have appeared in an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. On top of that, though, Lee has shot Gemini Man in 120 frames per second, using advanced cameras to capture images at frequencies five times faster than the typical 24 frames per second that most cinema is photographed in. Lee’s previous film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, harnessed the intense smoothness provided by this high frame rate to suggest the eerie sense of hyperreality experienced by its title character, an Iraq War veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder. In Gemini Man, it’s used to heighten the complex visual effects and lend an intense verisimilitude to the action. Still, the aesthetic remains more intriguing than fully effective.
Watching a film in 120 fps (an experience that’s available at only a few cinemas around the country; many more are playing Gemini Man in 60 fps) is exceedingly strange. You know that cinematic fuzziness that most films have when projected onto a theater screen, as if they’re playing behind a pane of glass? In 120 fps, the pane is gone, and the characters on-screen look like photorealistic giants. Some critics compare it to having “motion smoothing” on your television, but where motion smoothing is a digital effect applied to regular footage, 120 fps is the closest a camera can get to replicating what the human eye perceives. Either way, viewers just aren’t used to seeing people move that fluidly on-screen.
I personally prefer my movies to exist behind a pane of glass; I go to the cinema for the unreality, and a silly, high-concept yarn such as Gemini Man hardly needs to try to emulate what life looks like. But I still appreciate that Lee is trying something different and new, especially on a hoary old premise such as this one. Presented typically, Gemini Man would be no different than the million other star-driven action thrillers Hollywood has churned out over the years; seen in high frame rate, it’s nothing if not memorable. The first set-piece battle between the two Smiths emphasizes every punch, kick, and fall with alarming veracity; in high frame rate, there’s no blurring when bodies move, no way to hide Hollywood trickery. Every successful stunt feels more earned, and every battle scar lands more bluntly.
Lee has directed great action films before (his masterpiece, of course, will forever be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). But he’s also a remarkably compassionate filmmaker who’s dipped his toe in every genre available over the decades, and his gift for woozy sentimentality is all over this film. Henry is a character who recognizes the limits but also the strengths that come with his years of experience. Through the film, he strives to impart his unwavering sense of morality on his younger self, who was created without a conscience as little more than a killing machine. With every unnervingly polished image, Lee is telling a story as decent and upright as the most classic Hollywood tale of good and evil. Gemini Man has a foot in the past and the future, and it’s all the better (and weirder) for it.