The Screen Zealots would like to welcome Jay Tan as a guest critic. This is his first review for the site.
When filmmakers want to debut new shooting or projection technology, of course the right project makes all the difference. Lucasfilm’s CGI advancements in the special edition “Star Wars” trilogy in the 1990’s fulfilled Lucas’ original mise-en-scène vision for the space opera, and demonstrated the potential to change footage shot long ago. James Cameron later used “Avatar” to showcase his live-action/CGI hybrid format. So it’s very peculiar why director Ang Lee picked “Gemini Man,” an otherwise generic action thriller with Will Smith as an aging assassin fighting a younger version of himself, to make a second case for the 120 fps (frames per second) High Frame Rate (HFR) camera technology he’s lauded since 2016’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
This particular screening, in Real 3D and 120 fps, but at 2k resolution (not the 4k Lee intended), was a very different cinematic experience from a standard theatrical screening. Onscreen, the camera movement was far more fluid and apparent, but in such a jarring way that it took patience and effort to try and stay in the story, rather than letting the visual forest take away from the literary trees. This is exactly the opposite effect behind the intention of Lee’s HFR experience, which is supposed to be more immersive and believable. Instead, the visual experience felt like watching an action movie shot with video cameras from a soap opera, or like watching the storyline segments of an Xbox or PS4 game without having to play it.
But was there anything about the story itself that particularly lended this script to Lee’s HFR? Not really. If the idea behind HFR is to convince viewers that they’re immersed in the film, in the same spacial dimension as the cast itself, then perhaps HFR overshoots its mark. Indeed, the visual experience is different. But the quality is not close to convincingly “real.” A few explosions and items flying towards the screen was as much the 3D technology as the hyper-real quality of HFR. Satirically, I found myself wondering if this technology would be more effective in the other direction – small, emotionally-driven character pieces and acting tours-du-force. Like “what would Glengarry Glen Ross or Brokeback Mountain look like in HFR?”
That said, if not for the talk of a new cinematic technology associated with this film, “Gemini Man” also would have come and gone in the theaters that much faster.
The story itself is familiar and forgettable: a talented but jaded covert government assassin wants out, only to discover he’s the pawn of a larger operation (“The Gemini Project”) designed to capitalize on his talents long after he’s “done.” The cast almost echoes the dubious presence of the HFR tech itself, in that the pieces are there, but something just isn’t clicking. Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Benedict Wong’s performances are all well enough on their own, but the chemistry with the trio does feel forced.
Smith and Winstead’s dynamic walks the thin (but trite) line of romance burdened by danger. Thankfully, it opts to avoid cinematic convention, but it also lacks reward or payoff for investing in these two as a team. It’s more mentor-protege than May-September, although with all the other predictable storylines and non-swerves, one almost wishes that they would have followed through.
Smith and Wong are more believable, with Wong of course playing the easygoing sidekick that has all the connections, money, and armament resources to provide several international jaunts at a plot point’s notice. This spendthrift ease is almost comical, if not annoyingly convenient (think the where-did-they-get-the-money-for-that factor in any “Fast and Furious” installment).
Clive Owen, as the Machiavellian engineer behind the Gemini Project, comes across as an evil Christof (Ed Harris in The Truman Show), whose method-to-my-madness actually makes moral sense in his justification for playing DNA God.
The other marketing angle leading up to the film’s release was the idea of Will Smith vs. Will Smith, a device that we’ve seen not work for Jet Li (“The One”), Arnold Schwarzenegger (“The Sixth Day”), Michael Keaton (“Multiplicity”), and even Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart (“The Nude Bomb”). Admittedly, audiences have a reference point for a young, less jaded Will Smith, as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air (there’s no need to argue / hitmen just don’t understand), and the film’s finish ties up in a uniquely cute, if not silly, final bow. But Will Smith in one generational stretch (“The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Concussion”) has proven to be more interesting than the need for two at the same time.