Since “The Matrix” blew our minds two years ago, every movie from “Charlie’s Angels” to “Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo” has imitated its style. Much like these films, “The One” capitalizes on the market created by “Matrix,” that is, a market for Hong Kong action filtered through the latest technology. Director James Wong has many of the stylistic elements of the Wachowski brothers’ hit without the originality or complexity.
While “Matrix” properly blended American action and Hong Kong aesthetics, “The One” borrows all the wrong elements of American film. Plus, it waffles between graceful, emotional Hong Kong films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the brasher martial arts flicks of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. In the end, “The One” takes the weakest traits of each while marginalizing its star, the fantastic Jet Li.
In its opening seconds “The One” serves up a “multiverse” which contains several alternate universes and multiple copies of each human being. Each universe is slightly different from the other — Al Gore is even president in one. This “multiverse,” far from infinite, has precisely 125 universes, and Yulaw (Jet Li) is out to kill his alter ego in each of them. With each version of himself that he kills, Yulaw gains energy. Finally, only one other Jet Li remains between Yulaw and godlike strength — or alternately, the end of the universe, since no one knows what would happen if only one copy of a person exists.
The final Jet Li is Gabriel, who also gains strength with each duplicate that Yulaw kills. The real purpose of “The One” is to set up an epic battle between Yulaw and Gabriel. The early fights are quick and tense, utilizing unique locations such as an MRI machine.
But these fights aren’t enough to carry “The One.” Wong forsakes many key elements of a Hong Kong film: thematic complexity and a circuitous narrative like in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger,” and even gritty fights. Instead he opts for the typical beat-’em-up style of a simple-minded “Matrix” knockoff. Everything external to the combat is botched. “The One” has a single purpose — great fights — with no time for philosophy or hypothesizing. Despite having the intriguing pretext of alternate universes, the film plays like a video game that speeds through the story just to get to the next fight.
“The One” also lacks any emotion. Certainly the love scenes of “Matrix” were strained (mostly by Keanu Reeves’ relentless surfer-dude manner), but at least they shed a bit of light on the characters and even on Neo’s superhero status. “The One” might as well have no cast other than the two Jet Lis — that’s all it really needs for those fights.
Wong lets Li’s talents carry some of the fight scenes. Li’s world champion status in Wu Shu, a martial art that combines fighting with performance, shows in the more graceful scenes. One montage in particular highlights Li’s skills: Yulaw practices atop an apartment building while Gabriel does the same in his Zen-like bedroom, with fists dancing through shadows.
Most of the time, however, “The One” ditches gracefulness for higher technology. Dodging bullets, bending backs and slow-motion sparring fill the majority of the fight scenes. But those techniques seem recycled and unnecessary; while computer hijinks helped Keanu Reeves, they seem to inhibit Jet Li.
Wong seems to forget that in Li he has a one-man gang who really doesn’t need special effects. Certainly Li is still captivating, but one must wonder how changed the film might have been if Wong opted for grit instead of style. Then we could see what made Li one of the most popular stars in the Asian cinema, second only to Jackie Chan. “Kiss of the Dragon,” Jet Li’s previous film, was a success precisely because it catered to Jet Li’s talents; Wong unfortunately ignores them.
“The One” is watchable only because of Jet Li. Outside of the fight scenes, “The One” lacks the depth of better Hong Kong or even American films, while also missing the down-and-dirty action of an early Jackie Chan movie. Hopefully the sequel — and Wong certainly anticipates a sequel, judging from the conclusion — will allow Jet Li to be himself instead of making him waver between Bruce Lee, Keanu Reeves, and Chow Yun-Fat.