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Will Smith stands behind a Young Will Smith who is near tears during an interrogation Paramount Pictures

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Gemini Man is a reason to go to an actual movie theater

Will Smith’s new blockbuster is familiar, but visually audacious

The first drafts of Ang Lee’s new action-thriller Gemini Man date back to the late ’90s, but the finished product is a spectacle beamed to us from the future. The film stars Will Smith as a covert operative on the run, and a digital version of Will Smith’s younger self, created whole-cloth by Weta, as the clone assassin assigned to hunt him down. On top of that high visual-effects order, Lee designed Gemini Man for high-frame-rate 3D projection, a format that in the past has created a sense of hyper-realism for some moviegoers and splitting headaches for others.

Paramount Pictures screened Gemini Man in 120 FPS 2K 3D for critics, and the aesthetic forces Lee to completely rewrite the grammar of action filmmaking to, at times, compensate for or exacerbate the radical detail packed into the extra frames. For the full two-hour runtime, the tightrope-walk feeling of the endeavour never goes away. Hand-to-hand combat, vehicular stunt work, the shredding effect of bullets and squibs, and deep-breath dialogue moments all feel the tug of the high-frame-rate 3D’s gravitational pull.

In the era of the on-demand Netflix churn and cinematic universe tentpole, Gemini Man is a true event film. Lee’s technical choice can’t be separated from the plot. There is a right way to see the movie, and it’s in a theater. Reactions will be polarizing. Those looking for pure entertainment may be left cold. Those prepared for Lee’s experiment to disrupt their expectations should be mesmerized beginning to end.

will smith and mary elizabeth winstead stand on the roof of a Portuguese house looking out Ben Rothstein/Paramount Pictures

Like the meat-and-potatoes adventure plot that gave way to Avatar’s state-of-the-art CG character effects, Will Smith’s run-and-gun shtick is capable test subject for Lee’s experiments. After misinformation leads him to pick off a well-regarded geneticist instead of terrorist agent, career assassin Henry Brogan (Smith) calls it quits. But the U.S. government doesn’t let him off that easy, and after a few failed attempts by black-ops gunmen, warmonger Clay Varris (Clive Owen) sends in his ultimate weapon: Junior, a clone of Brogan born and bred to kill. On the run from … himself … Brogan and Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an agent with a sense of the conspiracy, go on the run to uncover the truth, bring down Varris’ clone factory, and solidify themselves as prime cable viewing for the next decade.

Even with all the technology in play, Smith’s steadfast charm beams through. Gemini Man is a movie star movie through and through. Brogan is the sharpest man in the room, capable of zinging as quickly as he could pop two bad guys with a silenced pistol. “Is it gun time?” Danny asks on the morning before a mission. “It’s not gun time, coffee time.” Brogan replies, Smith breathing life into a goofy line I’ll 100 percent be muttering to unsuspecting baristas until my dying days.

He also “makes this look good,” to use a Smithism; the actor’s comfort zone is selling his super spy omnipresence to an adversary with one simple phone call or rolling into a wisecrack as a barrage of cannon fire explodes his surroundings. He’s a pro, and Gemini Man tees him up.

Smith’s longevity in a business that craves youthful blood and cans stars past their “prime” has everything to do with the fact that, while groomed as an action star, the guy’s a legit performer. That’s never been clearer than in his motion-capture work for Junior, which gives a soul to what’s essentially a Na’vi that looks like Will Smith. But unlike Andy Serkis’ effect-defining roles in the last three Planet of the Apes films, there’s no anthropomorphic animal mask for Smith to hide behind here; Junior is human, and our brains know what that’s supposed to look like.

The high-frame 3D bakes the effect into scenes where Junior stands toe-to-toe with his tangible self, and Smith delivers the humanity. This is a kid whose life has been seized, erased, and programmed by a warmonger. He can be cut. He sheds tears. He’s angry, and after encountering Brogan, rattled. There’s a racial dynamic the script doesn’t really touch on in one of Clay and Junior’s pivotal scenes, but Clive Owen and Smith, despite all the micropixel makeup, strike the chord.

young will smith cries in front of his father in gemini man Paramount Picures

In those confrontational moments, Lee’s high-frame rate plops the viewer in what feels like the front row of a stage play — we can feel the actors’ presence, sense their breathing and every twitch. Landscape shots of Atlanta, Portugal, and Budapest have documentary energy, and every time famous actors interrupt the reality with tactical movement is a jolt. The film is brightly lit, even at night, giving the picture a comic book quality that most comic book movies never quite muster. There aren’t 3D gags in Gemini Man, but the strobeless effect stretches the dimension of every close-up until they pop.

The high frame rate also obliterates the optical illusion of traditional 24 FPS action. The addition of 96 frames turns Smith running across a courtyard evading machine gun fire into Smith hobbling like an actual 51-year-old man who’s a little too confident he’ll make it out alive. He’s athletic, but not superheroic. Camera motion is Lee’s answer to the image fidelity.

A mid-picture motorcycle chase is revved up with whip pans and first-person POVs to inject the sequence with speed. A brawl between Smith and his digital double is visceral and precise, each extra frame lending credence to fist-to-face contact. Other times when the facade falls apart: a massive shootout on small town street blasts several cars, tanks, and building interiors to smithereens and looks as real as the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. I found myself giddy over the meta-transparency of the backlot, but this is not John Wick.

Gemini Man abandons our definition of “cinematic,” but goes beyond the soap opera effect that made The Hobbit stumble and turned so many off from the format. This is new. This demands to be seen. But Lee is a bit of a masochist in his pursuit of verisimilitude. Map-jumping spy drama, existential sci-fi questions, and fight choreography test the imagination, a fully CG character tests our senses, and high-frame rate 3D tests our optic nerves. The balancing act becomes part of the fun — but it won’t be for every person who sits down to watch Gemini Man, which may only screen at 60 FPS 3D in the States (and in 2D for those who opt out).

Luckily, audiences get two Smiths for the price of one. Gemini Man’s father-son drama forged through battle tugs at the heartstrings. Lee, who has jumped from The Ice Storm to Hulk to Brokeback Mountain to Life of Pi over the years, is not just invested in the technology. His choices work in service of a story and his actors, who resist obvious stereotypes as they navigate obvious intrigue. I don’t know if Gemini Man plays well without the perfect projection, but I do know it’s working on every level.

Gemini Man arrives to theaters on Oct. 11.

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