There’s one good thing to be said for The One. It puts to rest any lingering doubts as to whatever happened to Doug Savant, formerly Matt, The Gay Guy on Melrose Place. For here he appears, uncredited as far as I can tell, an LA cop, his head smooshed by two motorcycles wielded by the villain Yulaw (Jet Li). I can’t even imagine what it must have been like: he’s stopping some guy on the street, when said guy proceeds to lay out a couple of motorcycle cops, grab their bikes, and hit poor Matt, whomp!, one on each side of the head, like he’s getting his ears boxed. It looks painful. Then again, the ignominy of being one of several anonymous corpses in the latest Jet Li opus can’t be very pleasant either. Ah well, it’s a living.
This must be the thinking behind The One, which, as an SF flick, doesn’t bear up to logical scrutiny any better than its most obvious precursor, Time Cop. Still, even if you expect such cinematic junk from Mr. Double Van Dammage, you may have been hoping that Li would not fall into similar habits. Alas and alack: in The One, Li falls hard, playing not one but two characters, the aforementioned bad guy Gabriel Yulaw (whose name may have something to do with the fact that he takes the law as his own to break and make), and Gabe, the really nice Buddhist (apparently added to the plot after the Rock dropped out to play the Scorpion King instead of the One). Gabe works for the LA Sheriff’s office, which means that he also has access to fighting and shooting expertise. Good thing, too, because Yulaw is one tough cookie.
Technically, the double role allows for digital effects and wirework choreography by Corey Yuen (who also worked on Li’s Kiss of the Dragon), so that Jet Li can do battle with Jet Li. To differentiate, one character conveniently has a hugely significant wedding band tan-line, the other just a snarly expression, and each adopts a particular fighting style, circular Ba Qua for good Gabe, a more straight-on punching technique for bad Yulaw. This moral dynamic gets a somewhat tiresome workout in The One. The script, by ex-X-Files writers Glen Morgan and James Wong (who also directs), has the doubleness premised in the notion that we exist not in a universe but in a multiverse, wherein parallel universes, not necessarily operating within the same timeframes, are populated by parallel versions of the same people — it’s like a whole bunch of Kirks and Anti-Kirks, all living different but also vaguely similar lives.
The film includes some alternate-universey in-jokes: in one, Al Gore is US President, in another, Gabe has long blond hair, in yet another, he’s married to man. Since no one really knows what might happen if the alternate selves ran into one another, or how each universe affects the others, travel between them is highly restricted, and if you’re caught messing about, you’re zapped off to prison in the dreaded Hades Universe, where it’s dark and scary and inmates rip each other’s guts out. Though this might sound interesting, you know you’re in trouble when the first thing you get in a movie — pre-credits — is a simplistic narration in a big-boomy voice explaining what you’re about to see. The set-up is obvious: someone will be traveling illegally and someone will be trying to stop him.
Yulaw is the illegal traveler. A former multiverse policeman himself, he’s now flitting about the multiverse, killing off his parallel selves (123 at the current count) in order to suck up their energies and become The One. The multiverse cops and administrators don’t know exactly what will happen after Yulaw has achieved his goal: will the entire multiverse system collapse? Will some giant black hole swallow all life forms? Will Yulaw himself implode or will he, as his adversary can barely bring himself to say, “become a god”? Yulaw, for, uh, one, is willing to take the risk.
That justifiably agitated adversary is Yulaw’s former partner, the exceedingly weary Roedecker (Delroy Lindo), on the trail for two years (and 123 murders, or suicides, or whatever you’d call them, given that Yulaw is eliminating versions of himself). For some reason, he blames himself for Yulaw’s rampaging (as soon as you hear this sad story, you know that Roedecker is not long for this multiverse). When a temporarily detained Yulaw taunts him, “You miss me?” Roedecker can only hang his head and say, “I miss you who you were.” Bingo. This is the film’s big idea, the one it never explores — the relations between multiple selves and between selves who know one another in multiple dimensions: how might such relations shape you, even if you don’t know (as seems to be the case here, in our universe) that they exist? How is time (linear? nonlinear?) a factor in travel between universes, in the way you understand yourself as somehow stable from moment to moment? And what about all those lurking SF paradoxes that accompany the possibility of encountering alternate selves?
Perhaps needless to say, these are questions that The One does not engage. Rather, it goes for the reductive action-plot, jumping from the clearly complicated Yulaw-Roedecker relationship to the less messy one, between good Gabe and Roedecker’s younger, more aggressive new partner, Funsch (Jason Statham, who seems to be wearing the same black leather coat he wore in John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars: apparently, in the near future, cops’ costume options will be limited). Both Roedecker and Funsch are eager to capture Yulaw, who is now superhumanly strong and speedy, but they’re also loathe to kill him, because there’s only one other Yulaw left in the multiverse, and they honestly don’t know what would happen if that were left to be The One, either. Best to keep both alive, but in separate universes, so they can’t hurt each other.
Good Gabe’s introduction to the whole business comes in a series of odd intuitive bursts: he “feels” bad Yulaw’s presence before he sees him (one more possibility for investigation of what’s at stake in this parallel universes idea… wasted). Because Gabe has also been getting stronger and speedier over the past two years, while the Yulaw Energies have been narrowing to just he and bad Yulaw, he and his lovely veterinarian wife T.K. (Carla Gugino) think this might be more of the same. By the time they figure out what’s going on, Yulaw has gotten past Gabe’s fellow deputies, and, despite Funsch’s best protective efforts, the two Jets will be locked in a super-showdown. The supposed climax isn’t nearly as amazing as it should be. Jet is a fabulous fighter, but he’s not much of an actor, and too much of the camerawork in this scene consists of facial close-ups: he growls, he contorts, he grimaces, he (or his stunt double) shows the back of his head a lot, but what you want to see — his body in serious kicking and chopping action — is not so much in evidence.
This is more the pity, because the movie, for all its inability to push difficult philosophical questions, relies instead on physical acrobatics and abuses for its thematic substance. That is, the many ways that bodies are beaten and battered, medicalized and manipulated, provide the film with its most alarming and ultimately thoughtful images, and not only when Yulaw and Gabe are bending each other’s limbs into impossible positions. Perhaps the most excruciating scenes take place when the multiverse travelers jump blast from one place to another: they don’t get that chi-chi beam-me-up-Scotty shimmer. No. Their bodies shatter into thousands of traumatized shards, then land hard, gasping and writhing, while medics in white hazmatty-looking outfits run insta-tests to make sure the internal organs are in their right places. This seems a point worth making: bodies are frail. Ask Matt.