Principal review by John J. "Kind Heart" Puccio
A few years ago I reviewed Jet Li's "Black Mask" (1996), a modest affair that I rather liked for Li's unpretentious charm, humor, and energy. Then I reviewed his more elaborate "Romeo Must Die" (2000), which I liked less, and "Kiss of the Dragon" (2001), which I didn't care for, either. Now, he's made the extravagant, special-effects sci-fi thriller, "The One" (2001), which I liked least of all. Do you see a pattern here? Seems the bigger the budget gets for a Jet Li film, the less I'm going to like it. Maybe it's because Hollywood sees Li purely as a piece of merchandise to be sold to the public. I suspect if they just left him alone to act himself in a picture, he'd surprise us all with a really winsome performance and probably a pretty engaging film. In "The One" he's 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, sometimes twice! This is a cold, hard, antiseptic film, bereft of mind or heart. 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 real-life mathematicians and physicists have suggested the possibility that universes like our own exist in a great froth of universes, like bubbles in a bottle of Coke. The idea offers innumerable imaginative possibilities for science-fiction, but not here. Not in "The One." Instead, we get a setting in the near-future when travel in this "multiverse" is not only viable but common, so common it has to be restricted and policed. Why policed? Well, you see, 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 universe to another by controlling worm holes, which are visualized 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's already done away with 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 he came to know this 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, Glen Morgan and James Wong (who also directed), didn't know. All Yulaw knows for sure is he has to get that last guy, who turns out to be a good, honest cop named Gabe. 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 or not, 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. OK, why if the Evil Li is potentially so capable of destroying the entire multiverse do the powers-that-be only assign two agents to capture him? Anybody's guess, again. Indeed, why when the Evil Li is 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 to be filled with maybe 400,000,000,000 galaxies of up to 400,000,000,000 stars each. You do the math.)
Somebody must have thought this dimension-traveling "Matrix" rip-off was going to sell. If there are any geniuses in Hollywood, they weren't involved with this film project. 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 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 farfetched nonsense. Yet such 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, and it tells us how little respect the filmmakers have for the sanctity of human individualism or love.)
Did I mention that the parallel Li (the Good Li) is also, conveniently, a martial arts expert? Or that he's married to a beautiful lady named T.K. (Carla Gugino)? Or that whether it's the Good 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 that make them appear to be highly advanced weapons but in actuality shoot ordinary bullets? 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 monotonous? You may phone in your answers from another life.
Columbia TriStar present the picture in both a 2.40:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen and a full-screen format. The widescreen obviously better duplicates the film's original theatrical showing, but the full screen often displays more image at the top and bottom. Because of the short running time of the feature (eighty-six minutes), the two choices can be accommodated on the same side of a dual-layered disc. 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, but there are no significant moiré effects or grain to worry about. I just wish it were more interesting to look at instead of having to stare at all those dull, tiresome, iron-gray tones.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which I had admired in Jet Li's previous films, is here merely loud. There is no subtlety, no grace about it anywhere. It's mainly used to underscore every plot action with a pounding, glaring rock beat, whether the scene needs it or not. Occasionally, a bullet will whiz by in a rear speaker or a car will screech around a corner behind us. It seems hardly worth the effort.
As far as special features go, Columbia have produced enough of them to take one's mind off the movie for a while. 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 long, an extended promo with interviews of cast and crew; "Multiverse Creates The One," eighteen minutes long, detailing the action sequences; "About Face," six minutes long, examining how the graphic artists enabled Li to fight himself in the finale; and "The Many Faces of Jet Li," two minutes, another actor promo. Then, there are some filmographies, a brief animatronic comparison, twenty-eight scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. English and French are the spoken language options, with English, French, Chinese, Korean, and Thai for subtitles.
John's Parting Shots:
To be fair, Li's athletic abilities are still in top form, 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." 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-six. Mainly, though, 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) are concerned, "The One" is damned dull. My Film Value rating: 4/10.
Another View by Eddie Feng:
"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." Now, 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 90 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 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. Let's hope that "Hero," the upcoming Zhang Yimou flick about assassins trying to kill the first emperor of China, will be a return to form for Li.
Eddie's Final Shots:
John's "4" for the Entertainment Value is a testament to his kind heart. He forgives filmmakers for offensive material more often than I do. "The One" was one of the worst films of 2001, in my opinion, and I think that we only have to look at the movie's title to find an appropriate Entertainment Value: a "1."