There’s nothing more dispiriting than a good filmmaker seduced by a shiny toy. As Robert Zemeckis went from the high-spirited craftsmanship of “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump” to the soulless motion-capture experiments of “The Polar Express” and “Welcome to Marwen,” so Ang Lee has recently traded in the humanity of “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “Brokeback Mountain” for the chimera of high frame rates. His latest is “Gemini Man,” an acceptably silly action potboiler that gives you two Will Smiths for your money and a visual “look” that, depending on where you see the film, may drive you bonkers.
A primer on frame rates: Throughout the history of celluloid, movies were shot at 24 frames per second (fps). Digital video can capture much higher frame rates, but movies are still shown at 24 fps, TV generally at 30 fps, and live sports at 60 fps. That’s why soap operas, the news, “SNL,” and football games have that hot “live” feel — it’s often called “the soap-opera effect” — compared to the more atmospheric look of film. In recent years, filmmakers have experimented with higher frame rates: Peter Jackson shot his “Hobbit” trilogy at 48 fps, even though few theaters were equipped to show it that way.
Lee filmed his last movie, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (2016), at a mind-boggling 120 fps, and he did the same with “Gemini Man,” adding 3-D to the mix like a cherry on a hyperrealistic cake. Only 14 theaters in America, none of which are in New England, will be able to show the film as Lee intended, so you’re out of luck. In the Boston area, some cinemas will be showing a 60-fps 3-D version, while others will screen “Gemini” in 2-D at the standard 24 fps. (Check listings at geminimanmovie.com for theaters showing the “3D+ in HFR” version.)
Critics here were screened the 2-D/24 fps “Gemini Man,” but even at the “normal” frame-rate, the film has a visual brightness and crispness that makes it look different. In well-lit exterior shots, it feels like a high-end version of the soap-opera effect; elsewhere, ironically, the movie comes across the way regular 24 fps movies should and would appear if the majority of theaters cared to project them correctly.
Oh, right, the movie — how’s the movie? “Gemini Man” casts Smith as Henry Brogan, a world-weary government assassin who has decided to retire, only to find that rogue higher-ups want him dead. This leads him on a continent-spanning, country-skipping series of chases, fistfights, and shoot-outs against . . . himself. Or, rather, a younger version of Henry that has been cloned by the hero’s former commanding officer and current nemesis, Clay Verris (Clive Owen, snarling lazily through a role beneath his talents).
So it’s basically a Jason Bourne movie vs. an earlier Jason Bourne movie, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a stalwart fellow agent who gives as good as she gets and Benedict Wong in the comic-best-friend-with-an-airplane role. The director’s craft is evident in the action scenes, which are ingeniously choreographed and excitingly filmed — a moped shootout through the streets of Cartagena is a heart-stopper — but the dialogue has a tin ear and, aside from the existential muddle facing the cloned hero, the screenplay feels as if it could have been spit out by a computer. Lee’s making this movie not for us but for the gizmos.
That includes the digital trickery that de-ages Smith to play “Junior,” the deadly but naive twenty-something hit man Verriss has dispatched to kill Henry version 1.0. In the darker scenes, such as a complicated tussle in a series of catacombs beneath Budapest, the illusion holds, and you can enjoy the spectacle of Will Smith pounding on himself. Elsewhere, especially in the final moments, you may feel you’re watching a video game character with Smith’s face digitally mapped atop it — a somewhat less than Fresh Prince.
The same could be said for “Gemini Man” as a whole. It’s a not-unwatchable retread that has been tricked up to pass as a whole new thing. The problem with high-frame-rate productions is that they don’t look like what we’re used to calling “movies.” The problem with this one is that there wasn’t much movie there to begin with.
Directed by Ang Lee. Written by David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke. Starring Will Smith, Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 117 minutes. PG-13 (violence and action throughout, brief strong language)