As Ang Lee reaches the late stages of his career, he is overwhelmed with a young man’s passion for new technology. He has paved his career inversely against the trend and has gone for the market, to support his hobbies. Starting with ripe, mature Chinese works, his work spoke broadly about Eastern and Western differences, while appealingly holding many of the great cinematic traits of the former. As he has gone, Mr. Lee has experimented across many genres. Few working directors have had their hands in such a variety of works. He’s made a varying and veritable impact on our cinema, and yet, settling into the twilight years of his sixties, has become focused on the technology of film, as many of our pioneering directors have been.
Gemini Man shows a profuse love for the advancement of High Frame Rate films. Unfortunately, the technical content is ahead of our time, as no theaters within the United States may display the film exactly as it is intended. Most will receive a hampered 60 frames-per-second version for 3D, as this review is based on. The intention is for the film to run at 120 frames-per-second in 4K 3D. Some theaters are playing it at 120 but none with all of the specifications. The good news is at even the doubled rate of the usual film, you can see the future of cinema projected onto the screen.
In Gemini Man, Will Smith spends a lot of time talking about mirrors. He is a top-grade soldier that has gotten on a scientist’s bad side and a perfect-replica clone is sent out to kill him. Their first contact is through a rifle’s optics and then through a mirror. We see what Lee must feel about the illusion he is breaking in cinema. Hypothetically, everyone on-screen in Gemini Man will look truer to life than any other film. The upgraded frame rate more closely matches what our eyes perceive in real-time while also withholding more information than they can clearly process from the screen and especially through some 3D glasses. It is a neat trick that is immediately noticeable. It is not a gravity changing moment for cinema but is so obviously the future and where things are going that we can excuse it for not being ideal in the present. It hardly matters how underwhelming the movie attached is, just out of respect for the crystal ball preview, it may be entirely worth it to the modern cinephile.
What does it benefit then? Ang Lee has experimented this way before. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) did it to not much effect. Nobody went to see the revolution. Not helping matters, the technique truly requires a bit of visual spectacle to show the reality of its invention. There is a major scene in Gemini Man where it sells itself. Will Smith and Fake Will Smith are fighting on motorcycles. There is a great motorcycle fight, with some of the best action choreography anyone will produce this year. The impact of the effect can be described like this – it’s the equivalent of processing the world after a really strong coffee. Every element of the action becomes clearer than ever before like your eyes have been gorging on caffeine. It’s like the first time you saw high definition and then again when you saw 4K. It is really spectacular and one of the year’s finest cinema moments – do not wait for home release if you must experience it. It’s the new freedom of movement, absolutely explicit in such sequences, that truly sell this technology as new, and novel. It is also only a few minutes of a too long and too staid thriller about a well-trained killer who must find himself (very literally).
The problem is that Gemini Man is not a good movie. The script is slop. The line-readings are not believable to their characters and it feels like it was born out of passion and innovative desire, but not a genuine need for the story to exist. Thus, it appears to be little more than a glorified tech demo. (And yes, it is truly glorious. Technical ambition and the realization of it are not the problems of Gemini Man). Otherwise, it is incredibly slight and inert. The action does not amount to much because it would be impossible to buy into the characterizations. There is no tangible proof this is the same filmmaker that made his most resonant early work or the astounding Brokeback Mountain (2005). Instead, we got the same Ang Lee that gave us Hulk (2003). The cast is a bit weird together. Its greatest moments of chemistry are between multiple Will Smiths. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is doing her best version of herself; she is a very capable actress, a bit above the material. Benedict Wong is special as Smith’s old military buddy but simply does not get enough to do. For Will Smith’s part(s), they are the best he’s been since his halcyon days in Men in Black and Bad Boys movies, as low of a bar as that is. Let’s not call it anything like a return – sometimes Smith’s CG version is better in his scenes.
We have seen this story a thousand times before, just never at such clarity and precision of movement. The High Frame Rate technique does wonders for the film’s better action impulses. It certainly has the best action sequence the director has ever framed and likely the best one you’ll see this year. There are noble, ultimately convincing reasons to go see Gemini Man. The movie is not one of them. Whenever it succeeds technically, the script lets it down formally. Despite an early feeling that we’re watching something new, the awe does not last outside a couple setpieces. Ang Lee’s proposed future of cinema is either why we’re going to the movies, or not going to his movies.