Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk stumbles without its gimmick

BILLY LYNNS LONG HALFTIME WALK (Ang Lee). 113 minutes. Opens Friday (November 18). See listing. Rating: NNThe test of any.

BILLY LYNNS LONG HALFTIME WALK (Ang Lee). 113 minutes. Opens Friday (November 18). See listing. Rating: NN

The test of any gimmick movie is whether it still works without the gimmick.

Can a movie like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense still grab you if you already know the twist? Will Philippe Petit biopic The Walk elevate your heart rate if you dont see it in IMAX 3D?

Ang Lee shot Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk in the bleeding-edge HFR 3D process thats being touted as a totally immersive dramatic experience. But most screens (all but three in Canada) are showing a standard 24-frame digital presentation, which is also how it was screened for Toronto critics.

Does it work as an ordinary movie? Not really. But Im not sure itll work in HFR either.

Adapted from Ben Fountains novel, its a study of the eponymous young war hero (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn) on Thanksgiving Day 2004. His entire squad has been brought home from Iraq to serve as military props at an NFL game in Dallas, and Billy is coping with severe PTSD as well as a gnawing sense that the war is wrong.

Either way, he isnt sure he wants to fight any more, and in conversations with his sister (Kristen Stewart) and a receptive Dallas Cowboys cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) he finds himself pulled toward a radical decision.

Billy glides, numbed, through the events of his day, flashing back to his homecoming earlier in the week and to the war. Lees use of the HFR process seems intended to deliver a hyper-realistic evocation of Billys perspective, placing us right there in space and time alongside him, at the mercy of his triggers and his panic.

I dont know if it works in HFR, but in that conventional presentation even one with a very large screen and a very active audio system, which is how I experienced it it feels like a technical exercise rather than an actual drama.

Dropped down to 24 frames, the ultra-resolution HFR image is rendered slightly crispy. The visuals seem to be trying a little too hard, like an HDTV on demo mode. Light sources appear to burn motion doesnt seem quite right. And the choices Lee and cinematographer John Toll make grow more and more irritating, locking us into direct-address close-ups from Alwyns co-stars or mid-shots that drop us into a space with half a dozen members of Billys squad, all dressed identically and arranged by height.

Yes, were supposed to be overwhelmed along with Billy, but we also have to identify with him for the drama to work. Instead, hes absent from many of the images, a spectator in his own story.

Lees other choices are similarly suspect. I g0t the feeling he was too busy playing with the camera to work with his actors, so the performances are uneven. Stewart and her On The Road co-star Garrett Hedlund (as Billys cynical commanding officer) are quietly terrific, and the stunt casting of Vin Diesel as Billys gruff but deep military mentor works well.

I wish I could say the same for Chris Tucker as a huckster sports agent and Steve Martin as a patriotic Texas millionaire. The movie isnt a comedy, and neither actor is allowed to do anything to stretch the cliched definitions of their characters, so whats the point?

Thats a question I could ask about the entire movie. Maybe it dazzles in HFR 120. But in the conventional version most of us will see, Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk left me feeling nothing at all.

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