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Just as IRL, Will Smith Is Haunted by His Younger, Cooler Self in ‘Gemini Man’

The venerable movie star plays two roles in the new action-thriller, but he’s also expressing a universal truth: Getting old sucks

Moneyball may not be a great movie, but there’s one line in it that has haunted me. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Oakland Athletics’ driven general manager, is flashing back to a piece of advice he got from a scout when he was a kid trying to make it in the big leagues as a player. “We’re all told at some point in time, Billy, that we can no longer play the children’s game,” the scout warns him. “We just don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but we’re all told.” 

We’re all told. 

As talented and committed as Beane was to baseball, there came a time when he just wasn’t good enough to play anymore. It’s a fate that awaits every professional athlete — hence the old adage, “Father Time is undefeated” — but it applies to everyone. Eventually, we’ll all get too old, weak, sick or complacent, and we’ll be sent out to pasture, replaced by someone younger, fresher and hungrier. In some ways, I find that certainty even more depressing than death: At least when I die, I won’t know what’s happened. But becoming irrelevant, well, that one you have to live through.

Movie stars have a shelf life, too, although that may seem impossible to believe considering that Sylvester Stallone is still out there making Rambo sequels. But nonetheless, they have a prime — a golden age — and once that’s over, it’s over forever. An aging A-lister may still get to be in movies, but he won’t be at the epicenter of Hollywood anymore. They won’t matter as much to fans as the signature hits they made years ago.

Will Smith’s new film Gemini Man is a pretty conventional action movie in a lot of ways, but it pointedly underlines this venerable movie star’s inherent dilemma — and then makes it integral to the plot. Recently turned 51, Smith remains a major box-office figure. (In the last few years, he’s enjoyed two of his all-time biggest hits: Suicide Squad and this summer’s Aladdin remake.) But as popular as he is, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s trying to outrun the inevitable: Pretty soon, he won’t be able to be the Will Smith we’ve known from so many blockbusters. In a sense, that’s an existential problem, but Gemini Man makes it literal since he spends most of the film trying not to be killed by his younger, stronger self.

Directed by Ang Lee using the same high-frame-rate technology he incorporated for his last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the movie stars Smith as Henry Brogan, a retiring government assassin who runs afoul of nefarious clandestine forces, forcing him to go on the run. Alarmingly, Brogan is being chased by an elite hitman half his age — even more upsetting, the hitman is a clone of Brogan. It’s bad enough to know that there’s someone out there hell-bent on killing you, but for Brogan, each new action sequence puts him in a showdown with, essentially, a superior version of himself — the younger Brogan whose lethal killing skills have yet to be diminished by age. Ironically, this clone goes by Junior — he very specifically has been hatched by a shady government organization to eliminate the less-efficient Brogan.

About 20 years ago, Jerry Seinfeld used to do a bit about how much he loved fatherhood and his newborn — but that he nonetheless had a morbid realization about what was really going on. “Let us make no mistake about why these babies are here: They are here to replace us,” he would say. “That is what they are doing. They are cute, they are cuddly, they are sweet and they want you out of the way. Next time you’re around a baby, look in those sweet little baby eyes. You’ll see one thought: ‘Only a matter of time, my friend. Your tired old ass can’t last forever.’” 

It’s a funny but grim notion: We’re creating an army of offspring that will render us obsolete. Smith, who has long exuded dad energy, has in the past leaned into that realization, casting his own son Jaden to play his kid in The Pursuit of Happyness and After Earth. (In the latter film, Jaden was even the story’s hero, rising to the occasion when his soldier father is seriously injured and incapacitated; it felt like a metaphorical passing of the baton from superstar father to precocious son.) But Gemini Man radiates a different vibe: Brogan doesn’t want to kill Junior — partly because he wants to know how the clone was designed — but he’s not ready to be made redundant, either. Brogan remains an elite assassin, but Junior is faster, meaner, better. Lee de-ages Smith for when he plays Junior, and while the technology makes him look a little digital and fake, it actually aids the performance. Junior is sleek and inhuman, while Smith (as Brogan) is graying, thicker, undeniably middle-aged. Junior might as well be the T-1000 — unstoppable and merciless, he’s a living grim reaper come to dispatch this one-time supernova movie star.

The problem is accelerated for actresses, of course, but male actors of a certain age face the challenge of being able to stay bankable to younger viewers who didn’t grow up with them. To someone in his 20s — roughly the same age as Junior — Will Smith is just some corny old dude who, long ago, was a big deal thanks to films like Independence Day and Men in Black. But in recent years, he’s stumbled through bad movies while making that awkward transition from Brash Young King of Summer Blockbusters to Established Hollywood Royalty. While Suicide Squad and Aladdin were huge commercial rebounds, neither of them were perfect fits: The former found him trying too hard to be a bad-ass, while the Disney remake allowed him too easily to lay back in an cozy Barcalounger of a role, which required nothing more than pure persona. It’s been years since Smith has really challenged himself on screen; honestly, he seems more comfortable coasting.

That’s why Gemini Man’s mano-a-mano battle has some real pathos: It feels like Smith’s cool former self coming back to haunt the soft middle-aged guy he’s become. A normal byproduct of aging is wondering what the younger, presumably more idealistic and ambitious version of yourself would think of the person you’ve become. That kind of thinking tends toward negative feelings regarding your current self — a sense that you didn’t live up to your promise. That feeling permeates Gemini Man, both for Brogan and Smith. This once-fearless assassin comes to realize that the future is bearing down on him. As for Smith, he’s trapped in a mediocre action movie that, years ago, he would have never bothered signing up for. He’s still able to play the children’s game, but for how much longer?

Here are three other takeaways from Gemini Man

#1. Will Smith will never stop apologizing for passing on ‘The Matrix.’

As part of the Gemini Man promotional tour, Smith was asked what advice he’d give his younger self. (Clever, right? You see, he plays his younger self in the movie.) Anyway, Smith’s answer wasn’t surprising: “I’d go back to the Wild Wild West [set], and I would say, ‘Asshole, why didn’t you do The Matrix?’”

By now, most people know the story: When the Wachowskis were putting together their second movie, a futuristic action-thriller about a seemingly ordinary bloke name Neo, they approached Smith to play the lead. At that point, Smith was red-hot — he’d been in Independence Day and Men in Black — but he passed, instead starring in Wild Wild West, one of his biggest bombs. Every major star makes mistakes, but few have been so vocal about his screw-ups. Earlier this year, Smith went so far as to make a video explaining why he turned down The Matrix. Basically, he blamed it on the Wachowskis not doing a very good job pitching it: 

Because The Matrix was such a surprise sensation — and because it remains such an influential film, both artistically and culturally — there seems to be a cottage industry of folks obsessed with its making. Two years ago, YouTuber Ross Thompson, aka “The Unusual Subject,” created a video inserting Smith into Matrix footage to give us a sense of what it would have been like with him in the 1999 film. 

In case you’re wondering, Smith wasn’t the only big star who turned down The Matrix. In his new book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, writer Brian Raftery reports that Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio also said no. (According to Raftery, DiCaprio wasn’t interested in another colossal, effects-driven spectacle right after Titanic.) By the way, in Smith’s video he says that the studio was thinking of going with Val Kilmer for Morpheus. Best. Movie. Year. Ever. notes that Warner Bros. also went after Michael Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both passed. Raftery writes that Kilmer was approached, although the Wachowskis weren’t thrilled about the prospect. 

What ultimately lost the role for Kilmer? According to Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a Warner Bros. exec, Kilmer met with the directors “and proceed[ed] to pitch why Morpheus should be the lead of the movie. I knew within two minutes of the meeting we were dead.” The role went to Laurence Fishburne instead.

#2. Here’s all you need to know about “high frame rate.”

Like Ang Lee’s last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Gemini Man is shot in a higher frame rate than usual. The conventional movie is shot at 24 frames per second — Gemini Man was shot at 120 frames per second. So what does that mean? Well, it allows for “sharper” images because there’s less blur. (More frames per second means more opportunity to capture every increment of motion, etc.) But because our brains aren’t accustomed to this higher frame rate, movies shot this way just look funky.

Peter Jackson learned this the hard way in 2012 when he released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which was shot in 48 fps. Reviewers spent a lot of time complaining about how weird the higher frame rate looked. In the New York Daily News, Elizabeth Weitzman wrote, “[T]he visuals are sharper, brighter and more immediate. … [But] [i]t’s one thing to sit on your couch watching football in HD. It’s another to view one of literature’s most enduring fantasies in the same manner. The experience that felt so breathtakingly cinematic in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series now seems frustratingly fake.”

It’s true that higher frame rates work great in sports — there’s a crispness to the images that make every play more exciting. But in movies, the opposite happens. Every single scene seems kinda phony — you can’t exactly put your finger on it, but it instinctively looks bad. And yet, filmmakers haven’t learned from Jackson’s example. Instead, Lee seems to be committed to this notion of higher frame rates. And James Cameron appears to be interested in incorporating the technology, at least in part, for his upcoming Avatar movies.

 Want more proof of why higher frame rates are jarring? This demonstration video should help. If you see Gemini Man in 60 fps or 120 fps, it’s an interesting experiment. But you’re gonna have to be cool with the film looking like this.

#3. Please enjoy the long-lost video for “A Nightmare on My Street.”

Most people first encountered Will Smith when he was part of the popular, fun-loving hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Their memorable late-1980s/early-1990s hits were “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime,” and soon after, Smith went solo to star in movies and drop singles like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” But I always had a fondness for another Fresh Prince smash, “A Nightmare on My Street,” which imagined a scenario where Smith has to do battle with Freddy Krueger. 

The problem was the band and its label never got permission from the Nightmare on Elm Street crew, which resulted in a lawsuit over the song. (By comparison, the Fat Boys worked with the producers to provide the theme song to 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, called “Are You Ready for Freddy,” which even featured a cameo from Robert Englund.)

Around the same time, “A Nightmare on My Street” hit radio, with the duo’s lawyers arguing that the single and subsequent video were parodies — and therefore didn’t infringe on the filmmakers’ rights. Eventually, the two sides settled out of court and all copies of the video were supposedly destroyed. But even last year, Jazzy Jeff was hoping that the video would someday air: “I had a copy of the video, and I had an old girlfriend that taped soap operas over it,” he said in 2018. “Will had a copy of the video and gave it to his dad and his dad lost it, but I don’t know anyone who has that video. That video is not online, that video is… like, it may be 20 people in the world that seen that video.” 

Then, in late November 2018, the video finally legally hit YouTube after being posted illegally in poor quality about a month earlier. What’s hilarious is that, in the video, the bad guy clearly isn’t Freddy, although all of Smith’s raps are about Krueger. Nonetheless, if you want a distillation of what mainstream late-1980s rap was all about, “A Nightmare on My Street” is here for you. 

So cheesy, so silly, so deeply appealing.