Let’s be clear on “Gemini Man”: It’s both action movie and experiment in film technology, and it’s more intriguing as the latter. The story, one that’s been kicking around in development for some two decades, is both simple and insanely complex: A trained assassin (Will Smith), looking to retire from the game and tend to his birdhouses and bonsai, suddenly finds himself pursued by his younger self. Which meant director Ang Lee, that master of the quiet character drama (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Brokeback Mountain”), had to create an entirely CGI version of Smith, to play himself 30 years younger. On top of this, Lee chose to make the film in a special high-frame-rate format (shooting in 120 frames per second, rather than the usual 24) and in enhanced 3D.
The result looks eerily sharp, as if someone took a regular movie and tightened the focus up to 11. (Note: To see the movie in HFR 3D, you need to go to a theater that supports that format; locally, that means Regal Meridian and AMC Pacific Place in Seattle, Cinemark Lincoln Square in Bellevue, AMC Factoria, and Regal Landing Stadium in Renton.) It looks both more real and less so; the water seems to have a slippery life of its own, and the actors’ faces seem uncannily detailed. And yes, it’s a distraction from the story, which isn’t particularly compelling beyond its summary. The dialogue is sometimes action-movie awkward, and the characters — which also include Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a fellow agent and Clive Owen as a villainous military man — never seem more interesting than the format they’re wandering in.
But there’s something poignant about seeing Smith performing next to a perfectly rendered “Fresh Prince”-era version of himself, created by digitally merging the actor’s contemporary performance with numerous pieces of vintage footage. (“Junior,” by the way, gets a nicely slow, dramatic reveal; you find yourself, illogically, craning your neck to try to get a peek at him.) Those almost-matching faces, one an echo of the other, speak eloquently of the passage of time. The screenplay has a bit of fun with the idea (lines like “If I were you, which I sort of am” abound), but it ultimately brings a layer of meaning to the film.
“Gemini Man” is full of the expected action and bullets, none of which is especially thrilling, but you leave thinking about those two faces — and about how movie magic keeps finding new tricks.
★★½ “Gemini Man,” with Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong. Directed by Ang Lee, from a screenplay by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language. Opens Oct. 11 at multiple theaters.