If action movies have taught us anything, it’s that hired killers would stagger under the weight of their guilt if it weren’t for the healthy, emotionally open relationships they maintain with their forty or fifty closest friends. The list of high-friend count killers includes Neeson in Taken, Bronson/Statham in The Mechanic, Reeves in John Wick, Stallone in The Expendables and, now, Will Smith in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man. When we meet Smith, he has a very specific lifestyle. When he’s not taking out terrorists, he’s enjoying Georgia’s filmmaking tax credits at the well-stocked bayou homestead where he contemplates the moral compromises that define him as a man and the beauty of his surroundings as rendered by Lee’s modified ARRI Alexa M camera.
It’s clear quickly that what makes this film different isn’t the main character, another assassin with more notches than belt, but the filmmaking. As a movie, Gemini Man is entertaining fluff. As a pitch for the movie theaters, it’s compelling stuff.
Pushing past the flywheel plot, which is amply summarized by the poster but fun to consider arithmetically (Manchurian Candidate + The Prestige, The Parent Trap/Frankenstein, Adaptation x Collateral), the movie comes into focus as a fairly profound statement about the value proposition of going out and eating popcorn in a dark room full of strangers. Watching Gemini Man is nothing like binging Netflix. The film is shot in digital 3D at 4k resolution and 120 frames per second (5x faster than the standard 24 frames), meaning it looks better than anything that’s come out since Lee previously employed this technique on 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, a film starring Taylor Swift’s boyfriend that no one saw. The result here is stunning. Lee renders each set piece — there are some diet Christopher McQuarrie vibes — in exquisite detail and provides a depth of field that is initially jarring but never nauseating. The vehicles look die-cast and all the fabrics look like leather, but this doesn’t detract from the remarkable beauty of the film.
Strangely, Lee’s technique is most refreshing in the film’s quieter moments. It’s hard to understand how much of this is just Smith, but it’s not just Smith. The technology renders imagery in such exquisite detail that it allows/forces the performers to tone it down a bit. It’s hard to understand how much of this is just Smith, but it’s not just Smith. The technology renders imagery in such exquisite detail that it allows/forces the performers to tone it down a bit. If Broadway acting is a 10 and movie 24 frame movie acting is a six, and Brando is currently at a zero, the stars here comfortably operate at a four. Clive Owen’s unmannered approach is ideal for the medium. Why Lee didn’t point this out to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, playing the cat Will Smith opts to save, or Benedict Wong, playing Murdock from The A-Team, is unclear, Owen and, to a slightly lesser degree, Smith does the material every favor imaginable by remaining very still when not being shot at.
And the de-aging motion-captured CGI stuff works too. So much so there’s not a ton to say about that aspect of the film. It feels like there must have been a bright blue Reebok tracksuit balled up somewhere on set.
But this is not just a technical exercise of a film of quiet moments. It’s a high-concept action flick about a murderous clone. When said clone and Owen, who is doing an impression of Betsy DeVos’s younger brother, try to kill Smith, the movie posits an extraordinary dilemma: Which Will Smith do we root for, nice-guy Deadshot or mean-guy Mike Lowrey? This passes for an existential quandary in Gemini Man, which is so shallow that it makes Ang Lee’s Hulk look like Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility.
The crazy thing is how well all of this works. Gemini Man is the best Gerard Butler movie ever made (no, he’s not in it) precisely because of Lee’s unwillingness to have characterization complicate the plot, which he allows to slinky itself down the grand staircases of Budapest while he focuses on the technical aspects of the film. The result is a gimmick, sure, but a gimmick that works. The narrative carelessness that should pull the viewer out doesn’t because the camera renders Will Smith is so pleasurably present. Smith’s familiar face looms over the theater in a way that is both intimate and impersonal. His monologues feel like they might end with him asking about your day.
Because the film is well made and enthusiastically stupid, the viewer is left with bandwidth to consider what could have gone wrong and the implications of Lee’s success, which is to say… what would happen should this technology fall into the wrong hands. Say, Todd Philips, the current man-child terrible of superhero flicks got his hands on Lee’s remarkable camera. Would he choose to exquisitely render an amateur tracheotomy instead of leaning towards Stormtrooper-style, Wilhelm-scream deaths as Lee does? What would that feel like? During a scene at the end of the film depicting the tragic death of the American diner, we briefly get a sense courtesy of an autocannon and a lot of silverware. It’s relatively mild stuff but still nerve-rattling.
Remake Midsommar in this format and people are gonna vomit. Remaster Boogie Nights in this format and people are gonna faint.
None of this is to say that Lee has somehow saved the movie palace. Many theaters can’t actually project at the prescribed frame rate and the dusty script refurbished by Game of Thrones starchitect David Benioff— Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson were both attached in previous decades — works principally because it’s just another movie. But the fact that the film is cool to look at is not insignificant. It demonstrates the potential possibility of a technology that doesn’t diminish the medium. At some point, Phil Lord and Chris Miller will shoot a Lego sequel like this and it will blow kids’ minds. For perhaps the first time, they’ll understand the urge to go sit in the dark and look up rather than sitting alone and looking down. It won’t be a watershed moment and it won’t change the economics of the industry, which favors a different kind of distribution, but it will be a nice thing. And there’s nothing wrong with a nice thing.
In the meantime, Will Smith is going to have to make new friends with fewer holes in them. This shouldn’t present a problem.
Gemini Man is out in wide release on October 11.
The movie is comfortably PG-13 and probably fine for teenagers, who will see far worse before the day is out. Nothing sexual here and no gore. Not a visceral experience on that level.