Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Will Smith is Double Trouble in ‘Gemini Man’

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Gemini Man is a film both ahead of its time while also being 20 years too late. Originally a concept dreamed up in 1997; it bears all the hallmarks of a pre-franchise era. In a way, it gives Ang Lee’s latest cinematic experiment an aura of quaint novelty. The clash between the script and the visual style may prove too much for some.

If you haven’t heard, Gemini Man was shot at 120 HFR (high frame rate) per second; the average film being 24 frames a sec. In essence, it is a crisper and more defined image the likes of which is literally biologically uncomfortable. We are okay with 24 frames because we have conditioned ourselves over a period of more than a century of filmmaking. Seeing such high definition can make the whole experience feel awkward and jarring, the images looking less like film and more like daytime soap operas, which are sometimes filmed live.

Blow those images up to a larger-than-life movie screen in 4K, 3D with 7.1 Dolby THX surround sound, and the result is anathema to everything we know about cinema. Toss in the fact that only 14 theaters in the country, all AMC theaters, can show Gemini Man in the correct format with the correct frame rate and you have a cinematic suicide run doomed to fail at historic proportions.

But Lee isn’t a stranger to high frame rates or to experimental cinema. From The Hulk to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Lee isn’t content with making movies as we know them. Like James Cameron or George Lucas, he has an obsessive drive to push the form. Unlike Cameron and Lucas, his mad dash to the future is heedless; he doesn’t care if we’re ready or not; because he is and that’s all that matters.

Gemini Man is the old story of the aging hitman who realizes his life is comprised of corpses and is finally coming face to face with his own mortality. Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is the best hitman the DIA has ever seen. He’s sailing off into the sunset with seventy-two kills; an agency record. Of course, like all secret shadow government organizations, the DIA doesn’t believe in retirement so much as memorial services. It doesn’t help matters that Henry discovers his last target wasn’t, in fact, a Russian terrorist as he had been told but, in reality, a molecular biologist.

For all the problems Gemini Man has, Smith isn’t one of them. Indeed, Lee’s secret weapon in all of this is one of the most charismatic and easy presences in recent Hollywood history. Smith’s charm, combined with his movie star ability to effortlessly convince us he is who he says he is no matter the role, helps bring us through the hurdles of Lee’s HFR experiment. When Smith finds out that the obligatory super-duper secret shadowy organization behind the regular old shadowy government agency has a hit out on him, Gemini Man quickly begins to fall into place. 

Gradually as the film moves along, the visual distractions begin to fall away. We become seduced by Gemini Man, because, unlike Cameron and Lucas, Lee is still fascinated by the human face. His previous film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, shot in 3D, 120 frames per second, and 4K high definition, was a psychological melodrama.

I saw Billy Lynn the way it was meant to be seen, and it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences in my life; I wish you had been there. It had to be seen to be believed. But in that film, Lee had his actors in minimal makeup, making close-ups intimate, invasive, and clinical.

Here Lee allows for more make-up making the close-ups less teeth clenching and diminishing the invasiveness of the typical emotive camera move. Plus, Gemini Man is much more action-packed, so the camera moves more quickly and smoother. This allows for fewer moments of closeups and way too personal moments with the actors. I mentioned in my review of Billy Lynn that if we were to continue down this road, we would have to re-think the grammar of cinema. 

Having seen Gemini Man, granted my theater only showed it in 60 frames per second, I can say my theory largely holds true. Except, it seems Lee is getting better at figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Gone are the long pans and slow zooms of Lee pondering his characters as they try to sort through their emotional and psychological baggage. They have been replaced with quick cuts, sharp close-ups cutting to telephoto lenses mixed with stationary foregrounds and rapidly moving backgrounds.  It’s a dizzying spectacle held together by the bottomless talents of Smith and his co-stars.

Lee has begun to find the balance necessary to bridge the cinema as it is to cinema as it could be. He allows his characters to interact and connect between all the dizzying action. Henry subtly flirting/interrogating the new woman at the marina Dani (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is refreshing if only because the two eventually form a deep platonic bond. Men and women are often in the same movie but rarely share the screen without romance or sex being involved. Lee blessedly sidesteps those pitfalls and allows Dani and Henry to grow as friends.

As a fellow DIA agent, Dani can take care of herself and quickly earns Henry’s trust and confidence. She goes from being rescued by him to being dragged by her shirt with a wounded leg and acting as a shield as she fires an array of bullets into the dark as Henry pulls her behind him. Dion Beebe’s camera sits at a low angle, almost right in front of the muzzle, allowing us to see her determined face as her rain of bullets erupts into the night. 

I’m telling you guys, Gemini Man is secretly a blast of a movie at times.

If the way in which the film was shot wasn’t enough, Lee goes the extra mile to introduce a clone of Henry, also played by Smith, using motion capture and a de-aging process. The look varies depending on the scene’s brightness and how much young Henry is forced to talk. Funny enough, it’s not the eyes that give away the special effects but the mouth. Young Henry destroys the illusion when he talks, the camera, hellbent on capturing every detail, damns Lee and Beebe by showing us the strings of their puppeteering.

Raised by Clay Varris (Clive Owen), young Henry is meant to be “exactly like Henry without all his darkness.” He was raised with love in a stable home. It’s the old “perfect killing machine” trope but executed with a sort of gleeful panache.

With the help of his longtime friend Baron (Benedict Wong), old Henry manages to suss out the conspiracy surrounding why his organization wants him dead and how there is a man who looks exactly like him, who moves like him, and even thinks like him, can exist. And here we have the film’s Achille’s heel; the script.

David Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke’s script at once fill the characters with a wry wit while also endowing the characters with almost no wit. At one point, old Henry talks to a Russian spy, and after confessing how angered he is by having his country trying to both frame him and kill him is met with laughter by the Russian. “In Russia, we call this Tuesday. But Americans, it hurts your feelings.”

Contrast that with how both Henry, Barron, and Dani are constantly wondering by how Varris is seemingly able to find them at every turn. Keep in mind these characters use cell phones constantly throughout but are baffled by how the enemy knows their every move. The look of stunned disbelief on their faces, and mine, when young Henry reveals a tracking device embedded in old Henry’s arm during a surgery a few years back.

Moments like that show the script’s age. The banter is solid but is helped more by the charisma of Smith, Wong, and Winstead than the actual dialogue itself. Still, the script allows Smith and Winstead to explore the moral grey zone of Henry’s life, both him and his clone, while exploring how his own mortality has affected his view on his life choices.

Believe it or not, the moments of hackneyed writing pulled me out of the film more than the uncanny jawline of young Henry or even the jarring discomfort of high def. But Lee and Beebe overcome that with breathtaking vistas and ingenious action set pieces so brash and invigorating it’s a shame most of the country can’t see it the way it should be seen.

Beebe and Lee work to try to make an immersive and affecting film from both a storytelling standpoint as well as a visceral one. A lot is being talked about how much they failed, but little is being talked about how much they succeeded. I went in a skeptic, but I sit here now a changed man who has seen the light. 

One such scene involves a motorcycle chase scene with Smith chasing Smith. Because of the high-def frame rate, Beebe and Lee follow the chase as if on a dolly shot, making every car’s and curb’s impact seem immediate and as if we are witnessing it live. At one point, the camera follows old Henry as he zooms up a ramp, keeping pace with him without ever blurring, something impossible with normal film, and zooming up to him as he pulls a j-curve into a stop. Beebe’s camera work is exhilarating as it allows the action to feel unchained, not in a comic book or cartoonish way, but as in gravity is real, and these people might get hurt, and the camera is right there with them.

One fight between the two smiths occurs in the Royal Court of the catacombs. The skulls line the edges of the frames and add a sense of eerie morbidity to the action. But as the camera follows the two down as they roll off a ledge into the river beneath them, it is, in every sense of the word, a roller coaster ride. Gemini Man is a wild cheezy pulpish ride that just so happens to be filmed at one hundred and twenty frames per second in 4K 3D. Meaning if you don’t accept what Lee is doing or try to, you will likely find yourself recoiling and demanding your money back.

It’s funny; for years, Holywood has been trying to make a video game movie that feels like a video game and a movie. Watching Gemini Man, I began to see a path toward such a place utilizing the high frame way and high definition. The frame rate and definition, combined with the fluidity of camera movements, allow for a heightened sense of realism but at arm’s length. The result is the feeling of many first-person shooters but with the added mastery of Ang’s keen visual eye and Beebe’s intrinsic knowledge of where the camera needs to be. 

Like it or not high frame rate is the future of the medium. I’m not saying we’ll get there next year or even five years, but we’re getting there faster than many of us are comfortable. I can feel it in my bones, we’re close, and in a way, I’m almost giddy. Cinema has been around for over a century; at the very least; it’s due for a dusting-off.

As for Gemini Man, I went in a dour skeptic and left a grinning idiotic believer. Ang Lee isn’t creating new worlds like Cameron’s Avatar. Instead, he is taking old stories and showing us how we can still tell them using new technology and images and coming out with something new and rare. 

It’s a hell of a thing to walk into a movie theater and discover there are still new realms to explore outside special effects. Gemini Man may not be perfect, and at times it may even make you groan. But it is because of this that it feels alive with the energy of a newborn style and new demands on our senses. Love it, like it, or just plain hate it-you won’t soon forget it.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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