Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Eddie provide their opinion of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.
The Film According to John:
Some years back I reviewed Jet Li's "Black Mask" (1996), a modest affair that I rather liked for Li's unpretentious charm, humor, and energy. After that I reviewed his more elaborate "Romeo Must Die" (2000), which I liked less, and "Kiss of the Dragon" (2001), which I liked even less than that. Then, in 2001 he made the extravagant, special-effects sci-fi thriller, "The One" (alternatively titled "Jet Li's The One"), which I also disliked, maybe even more so than the others. It seemed the bigger the budget got for a Jet Li film, the less I enjoyed it. Fortunately, Li redeemed himself in 2002 with "Hero" and later with "The Forbidden Kingdom," but it's "The One" that concerns us here, this time in high-definition Blu-ray picture and sound.
Here's the thing: In "The One" Li finds himself so overshadowed by high-tech hardware and numbskull plot lines, we hardly notice him at all, despite the fact that he's in every scene, often twice. This is a cold, hard, antiseptic film bereft of heart or mind. It is, in essence, a waste of Li's martial arts talent as well as his acting ability.
The story's premise relies on the theory that there may be many universes existing around us, and that if people could go from one to another, they could wreak serious havoc. In fact, some mathematicians and physicists in real-life have suggested the possibility that universes like our own may exist in a great froth of universes, like bubbles in a glass of Coke. The idea offers innumerable imaginative possibilities for science-fiction, but director James Wong and his co-screenwriter Glen Morgan ignore them. Instead, we get a setting in the near-future when travel in this "multiverse" is not only viable but common--so common the authorities have to restrict and police it. Why police it? Well, you see, in the story each universe contains a variant of each of us in it, and if you could go around to each of these parallel universes killing off the variants of yourself, you could absorb that other person's life force, making you more powerful. What do you mean, where'd that harebrained idea come from? It's part of why the film is so silly to accept. What's more, people in the film travel from one universe to another by controlling worm holes, which the film visualizes as giant suction funnels that slurp up bodies by disintegrating them and then reassembling them on the other side. Or something.
Anyway, Jet Li plays an evil guy named Yulaw who's trying to kill off all the duplicates of himself in the other universes. When the film starts, he has already killed 123 versions of himself and he's after the last one, the 124th. Apparently, that means there are only 124 total universes in the multiverse. How Yulaw came to know this and why there are only 124 is anybody's guess. Regardless, killing off the last one will give him ultimate power. He will be "the One." What that means is also anybody's guess. Even the characters in the film are unclear on the concept. Will he become a god? Will all the universes end? No one knows, probably because the scriptwriters didn't know, either. All Yulaw knows for sure is that he has to get that last guy, who turns out to be a good, honest cop named Gabe (also played, of course, by Li). From here on out, for clarity's sake, I'm going to call these two fellows the Evil Li and the Good Li. They are kind of like the good and evil clones of Big Arnold in "The 6th Day," except that movie, mediocre as it was, was more fun.
"The One" begins in the cold, hard, antiseptic state I referred to earlier with a shot of the inside of a police jail filmed in shades of iron-blue. Things never lighten up. We know it's the near future because Gore is President in one universe and Bush in another. The Evil Li is killing victim number 123 by jumping out of an air vent, dodging bullets (and dodging Dodges), shooting both his target and about 600 policemen without looking in their direction, and outrunning patrol cars. Then he leaps a bridge in a single bound. I expect he can bend steel in his bare hands as well and change the course of mighty rivers. Chasing him futilely are two special agents played by Delroy Lindo (finally getting to portray a decent fellow instead of a drug lord or some equally disreputable character) and Jason Statham (before he became famous and got to star in his own films).
OK, why if the Evil Li is potentially so capable of destroying the entire multiverse do the powers-that-be assign only two agents to capture him? Anybody's guess, again. Indeed, why when they get the Evil Li cornered don't they just shoot him? More mystery. Instead, the good guys seem determined to be good at all cost. They simply want to put the Evil Li into a penal colony for the rest of this life. How noble, with presumably 124 universes at stake. (And in case you're not sure about the size of a universe, scientists estimate our own universe has maybe 400,000,000,000 galaxies in it of maybe 400,000,000,000 stars each. You do the math.)
Somebody must have thought this dimension-traveling "Matrix" rip-off was going to sell, but it didn't quite earn back its budget at the box office. I've said this before but let me repeat it: A fantasy must establish credibility within the limits of the world it creates, a world wherein its own fanciful laws must work in a logical and consistent way. If things happen in a fantasy that the author hasn't prepared us for, we can't easily suspend our disbelief. It all becomes far-fetched nonsense. Far-fetched is the case with "The One." It starts with a perfectly acceptable theory of multiple universes and then just makes stuff up as it goes along, first stretching credibility and then breaking it. Even the movie's penultimate scene, which takes the Good Li into another world, is hopelessly preposterous and cynical to boot! (Without revealing too much about it, I have to tell you the scene involves Li's starting over with presumably interchangeable substitutes, which tells us how little respect the filmmakers have for the sanctity of human individualism or love.)
Did I mention that the parallel Good Li is also, conveniently, a martial arts expert who gets stronger along with the Evil Li? Or that the Good Li is married to a beautiful lady named T.K. (Carla Gugino)? Or that whether it's the Good Li or the Evil Li, they delight in posturing and strutting and showing off their physiques? Or that people keep popping up in unlikely places for no explicable reason, like the two special agents who are always one step behind the Evil Li yet always know exactly where he is? Or that the special agents use guns with little blue lights on the ends of them that make them appear highly advanced when in actuality they shoot what appear to be ordinary bullets, despite what Statham's character says about them? Or that the inevitable final showdown between the Evil Li and the Good Li, the confrontation we look forward to for so long, lasts about a lifetime without generating a single moment of tension or excitement?
Could a futuristic, sci-fi, fantasy, kung-fu fighting adventure be any more sterile or listless than "The One"? You may phone in your answers from another existence.
John's film rating: 4/10
The Film According to Eddie:
"I YAM YULAW, AND I YAM NO ONE'S BEECH."
While Jet Li may not be anyone's "bitch," he certainly has had a bitch of a time finding a good role in a good project since he began making English-language movies. He played the grinning Asian devil (an offensive stereotype from the days of Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless, for crying out loud) in "Lethal Weapon 4." He played a cop who takes the fall for his good-for-nothing father and brother in "Romeo Must Die." Here, he's playing various versions of a character in a multi-universal movie that exhibits little shame in becoming more and more ludicrous as it rolls.
John's right about how listless the movie feels. Although "The One" runs for less than ninety minutes, it drags its feet. My father and I saw it at the end of a long week, and we both almost fell asleep watching it. Imagine that, falling asleep during an action movie!
Most of the film occurs in places with dark lighting. Low light levels tax the eyes after a while, and you have to deal with physical strain on top of trying to sort out the storyline. The laborious exposition has to be explained throughout the entire length of the story, and even then, I don't think that even the characters quite understand their own convoluted logic. Also, the script makes a big deal about Yulaw killing 123 versions of himself, yet it never quite settles the issue of whether or not there are 124 or 125 universes (since Yulaw and Gabe both remain).
In the end, the story doesn't really matter. It's hard to care about a narrative that depends on contrivance rather than logic. And, given how mean-spirited the film's tone is, you can't even enjoy "The One" for popcorn fun. Rather, you just have to content yourself with watching Jet Li grimly going after himself, scowl permanently etched onto his countenance.
John mentions later in the conclusion that he liked Li's last line of dialogue. The only part of the movie that I liked was when Carla Gugino, who plays Gabe's wife, says a few lines in Mandarin Chinese. She gives her words cute intonations, and it's nice to see a Caucasian actress try on an Asian language rather than a European one.
Jet Li has certainly fallen from the cinematic heights of "Once Upon a Time in China" and the days of playing Chinese folk-hero Wong Fei-hong. I'm not saying that those films had the greatest of scripts--I'm just saying that Li used to spend time on productions with souls. Currently, he seems to be content just bashing the livin' crap out of anyone who opposes him. "Hero," the Zhang Yimou flick about assassins trying to kill the first emperor of China, was a return to form for Li.
John's "4" for Film Value is a testament to his kind heart. "The One" was one of the worst films of 2001, and I think that we only have to look at the movie's title to find an appropriate Film Value: a "one."
Eddie's film rating: 1/10
Sony present the picture in a 2.40:1 ratio widescreen, using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC video codec. The picture quality is good when the director isn't playing overmuch with filters and lens. It's a little rough and dark at times, often looking like there is a mild veil over the proceedings, but there are no significant problems to worry about. Clarity is OK, although faces occasionally appear somewhat soft. I just wish it were more interesting to look at instead of having to stare at tiresome, overused, iron-gray tones.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless audio is typical of most action-movie soundtracks, which is to say loud. There is no subtlety, no grace about it anywhere, but at least the disc reproduces it well enough. It's mainly used to underscore every plot action with a pounding, glaring rock beat, whether the scene needs it or not. Bullets whiz by in the surrounds and cars screech around corners behind us. While it hardly seems worth the effort, the TrueHD does provide a good, punchy sound, with plenty of taut mid-bass.
As far as special features go, Sony offer enough of them to take one's mind off the movie for a while, although they are all in standard definition. Like rather than watching the film, you could listen to the audio commentary with director James Wong and various filmmakers with the television screen turned off. You could also watch one of four featurettes: "Jet Li Is The One," thirteen minutes, an extended promo with interviews of cast and crew; "Multiverses Create The One," eighteen minutes, detailing the action sequences; "About Face," six minutes, examining how the graphic artists enabled Li to fight himself in the finale; "The Many Faces of Jet Li," two minutes, another actor promo; and an "Animatic Comparison," one minute. In addition, there are sixteen scene selections; bookmarks; a BD-Live component; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
To be fair, Li's athletic abilities were still in top form here, his moves as lithe and graceful as ever. But the fighting scenes are repetitious and redundant this time out, and they display little of the imagination shown in Li's previous films, let alone stacking up to things like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or his own "Hero." All the same, there was one good part in the movie, right at the end, about a minute, that I enjoyed for the over-the-top outrageousness of its spectacle and the sheer absurdity of its closing line. One good minute in eighty-seven. Mainly, I found watching this film about multiverses like being in another universe myself. Bullets fly, lights flash, action occurs, time goes by, but nothing actually happens. As far as Dumb Action Movies (DAM) go, "The One" is damn dumb.