‘One’ too many
Unlike some of his peers from Hong Kong, action hero Jet Li ("Kiss of the Dragon") is unique because he's willing to play a bad guy. Not only is he eager, but he's also remarkably adept. Despite his 5-foot-6 frame, Li projects an unwavering confidence that makes him thoroughly intimidating. His intense eyes and calm expression helped him steal "Lethal Weapon 4" from the film's stars without opening his mouth.
Li's a bad guy again in "The One," in which he plays an unusual mass murder named Gabriel Yulaw. A former policeman, he can travel between parallel universes, thus easing his escape. While he has no qualms about harming anyone who gets in his way, his primary target is himself. More specifically, Yulaw has discovered that if he kills a parallel universe's version of himself, the power and the strength of the victim are distributed among the surviving selves. This fact has led him to kill himself 123 times, leaving only one other survivor.
Naturally, Yulaw wants to take out this last one, too. A pair of
Multi-Verse Authority cops named Harry Roedecker (Delroy Lindo, "The Last Castle") and Evan Funsch (Jason Statham, "Snatch") are determined to catch him even if they can't agree on how because killing the last one (Li again) could permanently ruin the balance of the universe or make Yulaw invincible.
Li may be an original, but little in "The One" is. The script by producer Glen Morgan and director James Wong (the team behind "Final Destination") liberally plunders ideas from other (and sometimes better) science fiction fantasy flicks. There's the "there can only be one" motif from the "Highlander" movies, and the slow-motion action of "The Matrix." Much of the experience of sitting through "The One" is saying to one's self, "Didn't I see that in 'The Terminator?'"
Morgan and Wong seem to have actually regressed since their last movie because the dialogue couldn't be more awkward. When the good version of Yulaw loses somebody close, he laments, "I am him, without her."
Of course, few who enjoy Li flicks really care if the plot or characters are all that well crafted. The one thing that makes a movie like this worth its salt is the action. Here too, "The One" is lacking. Because of the superhuman strength, speed and agility of Yulaw, the filmmakers feel the need to supplement Li's natural athletic prowess with digital enhancements. In some instances, it is pretty fun. There is something unique about watching two Li's going hand-to-hand in the same shot.
Most of the other sequences seem strangely counter-productive. When Li lifts a motorcycle in each arm and starts scrunching cops between them, any attempt to give the story some gravity is lost. As a computer-supplemented Li leaps over buildings, the credibility of the action wanes. Although a quick glance at the star's Asian films indicates that he's no stranger to special effects, his graceful acrobatics seem more astonishing in movies like "Once Upon a Time in China," where any augmentation is handled with greater subtlety. All of the gizmos Wong employs rob the action scenes of the "Wow! Is he really doing that?" quality that makes Li's Hong Kong flicks so entertaining. All the effects reduce Li to being a handsome, digitally altered face. The fact that the bullet-dodging scenes owe an astronomical debt to "The Matrix" removes any freshness and wonder from them.
On the plus side, some of the attempts at humor are interesting, even if they aren't that sidesplitting. In each universe there is a noticeably different outcome to the American presidential election in 2000, and fans of the documentary "American Movie" might get a kick out of seeing that film's subject, Mark Borchardt, in a cameo. In addition, those who think that Li can't do comedy should check out some of the goofy disguises he dons to play Yulaw's alternate selves.
There is a thrill to seeing Li act against type and to do it with some flair. It's a shame that little else in "The One" reflects his singular talents.
"The One" is rated PG-13.