Gemini Man: Second Chance, by Scott Nye
Ang Lee’s Gemini Man begins in familiarly thrilling territory – a man is perched on a hillside, preparing his sniper rifle to kill a stranger on a passing train. He makes his shot, of course, because he is The Best. But as The Best, he is haunted by the people he’s killed, or nearly killed, or might have killed. And so he retires. As Henry (Will Smith) walks out to the dock where he harbors his modest boat, the new, pretty attendant (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) asks him what he’s fishing for. “Peace and quiet,” he replies; and for awhile, he finds it.
Even including that first sniper showdown, much of the first quarter of Gemini Man is dedicated to unusually mundane interactions that are not overly aestheticized, nor blandly presented. A good thing, too, as the viewer Lee has in mind is still adjusting to the images being project in 3D at 120 frames per second (five times the speed of traditional cinema), which drew my attention to the sort of details usually buried at a standard frame rate or ignored out of a desire to edit the film to the story. Such details were also brought to the fore by the same technology in Lee’s last film, the quietly extraordinary Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk. But where that film used the technology to illuminate the terrifying world of the everyday when you live with PTSD, Gemini Man uses it to emphasize the world’s beauty – Winstead’s hair blowing in the breeze, the wind across the water, waves lapping on the shore, a light rain on a cool day quickly became far more important than the outlandish plot soon to unfold.
The effect is not to make the film more “realistic,” but to make it hyper-real, aided in turn by the acting style and shot scheme – lines are read a bit slower than the average film; shots, often gazing directly at its subject’s face, are held a little bit longer. Those familiar with Manoel de Oliveira may recognize this pattern, drawing out a moment slightly beyond which we can live in it in life, fixing our attention to all the little things we usually let float on by, which becomes central to the film’s underlying emotional anchor – a desire to hold onto life’s simple pleasures, and to pass them along. These incidental details are quickly captivated me, awoke me to my senses, and transported as though to another world, though much of the locations are all too grounded.
And, yes, this is still a film about Will Smith fighting his younger self, who does come around eventually in a staggering action sequence filmed with the same patience, attention to detail, and fascination with his environment as Lee and cinematographer Dion Beebe (whose work with Michael Mann on Collateral and Miami Vice prove very informative to this) brought to those earlier encounters. They seem intent on capturing as much action as possible in a single take without fetishizing the “long take” aesthetic that is so celebrated in YouTube compilations. Simple, clean, thrilling photography more than suffices.
These action scenes are quite unlike any I’ve seen before, the sense of perspective refined and exquisite, so that even when we switch points of view between two men who look remarkably alike, we are never lost for geography. Technically far more complex than far showier films out there – pay attention especially to a late Will-on-Will battle underground, shot with a handheld camera, with light bouncing all over the place, and remember that the first thing a VFX house has to do is track where all the people in the scene are, and the last thing they do is make sure the light levels are consistent. In every single frame. Times 120 per second.
Such aesthetic decisions only become more pronounced as the film pounds along, once it’s confident it has won both your attention and understanding of its expression. But the attention to stray details – violent though they’ll become, and occasionally almost abstract – never leaves its concern. The Colombia chase is as captivated by fishing nets thrown as bodies, the underground hand-to-hand combat just as enraptured in the shadows and light as where the fists land, and how.
My favorite book on movies is Christian Keathley’s Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, a study of the “marginal details” in movies – a stray gesture, a glance, a particular natural phenomenon taking place around the main action of the film, and the effect they seem to have on certain viewers. These aspects are often incidental, perhaps even unintended, but they captivate our attention and set our imagination ablaze. “[A]s the story goes,” Keathley recalls in his introduction, “many viewers of a century ago who watched the first films of the Lumiere Brothers were often delighted less by the scenes being staged for their amusement than by the fact that, in the background, the leaves were fluttering in the wind.” I hardly expected a major blockbuster to be the film this year that called this book most urgently to mind, but that is precisely what sort of film Lee has crafted.
Perhaps more importantly, these details amount to the life Henry is trying to hold onto, and which he is trying to spare himself from ending for anyone else. He is capable of “beating” his clone, but he sees in him all the opportunities he once missed, and a new chance to, in a way, correct them. To find pleasure in a sunny day rather than just for the good light it will give the next kill shot.
Gemini Man has a lot more to its plot than I’ve detailed here, and much of the specifics of the screenplay are perhaps a bit silly. But at its core, by keeping the central concern around people of death trying to make simple, decent lives for themselves and leave a better world for those who follow them, Lee’s overriding attention to the ecstatic joy of the smallest, most ordinary things transforms into something almost spiritual. David Lynch had this great line once where he talked about his love of older movies, how they were both what they are and so much more. Too many films now, Lynch noted, simply are what they are, but the arch style of older films virtually ensured something a little surreal. Rarely is such energy reclaimed anymore; Lee has done just that.