Like every big-budget action/sci-fi vehicle produced by Hollywood these days, The One is a video game masquerading as a feature film. These movies often sound horrid on paper, but as long as you enter the theatre primed for the experience, it is possible to have a good time, particularly if the movie has been crafted with some care. Successful video-game movies like The Matrix are so well-made, so confident in their ability to entertain, it's easy to overlook their inherent mindlessness. For every Matrix, however, there's a shoddy piece of hackwork like this summer's dismal Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which leaves you wishing you had just spent the ten bucks at the arcade.
The One falls squarely in between these two extremes, which is both good and upsetting. Good because the film packs enough visceral excitement into its lean 87-minute running time to not be a complete waste of money. Upsetting because it could have amounted to so much more. The movie's concept alone--a super-villain travels through 124 parallel universes to destroy each of his alter egos--is enough to make the geek inside all of us salivate. Add the presence of charismatic Hong Kong action star Jet Li as both the hero and villain, and you've got the makings of a kick-ass video-game extravaganza. Unfortunately, director James Wong (who also co-wrote the script with producer Glen Morgan) seems to have checked his imagination at the door; he handles the action scenes competently enough, but can't (or won't) inject any personality into the rest of the movie.
The film starts out promisingly enough with a lively chase sequence that finds former cop turned power-crazed baddie Yulaw (Li) hunting down and slaying the second-to-last of his alternate personas. But before he can escape back to his own reality, Yulaw is captured by agents from the Multiverse Bureau of Investigation, an organization that polices travel between the 124 different universes. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Yulaw is rescued at the last moment and transports himself to the universe where his final "double," a heroic L.A. Sheriff's Department officer named Gabriel, awaits. The villain hasn't made the trip alone, however; two M.B.I agents (played by Delroy Lindo and Snatch's Jason Statham) are hot on his heels.
From here, the plot unfolds in such a choppy manner, it's as if Wong and Morgan didn't think beyond the pitch session. It becomes painful to watch how quickly the duo squanders the story's potential. After going through the trouble of establishing the Multiverse, they refuse to have any fun with the concept. Their lack of inventiveness carries over into the movie's visual style. For a film about parallel universes, all the versions of Los Angeles depicted here look distressingly similar. Wong stages every scene in the most generic of locations--a parking garage, a hospital, an abandoned factory. Even the vaguely futuristic offices of the M.B.I look like leftover sets from Judge Dredd.
By far, Wong and Morgan's biggest crime is their misuse of Jet Li. Of all the Hong Kong stars to cross over to Hollywood in the last few years, Li has had the hardest time carving out a niche for himself. In his first solo Hollywood effort, Romeo Must Die, the filmmakers surrounded Li with so many distractions (including a hip-hop soundtrack and the presence of R&B star Aaliyah), he came across like an extra in his own movie. The One thankfully returns him front and center, but for some reason chooses to hide his extraordinary fighting skills behind special effects and gunplay. Li doesn't get the chance to cut loose until the final battle, but even there the director keeps tossing in unnecessary slow-motion shots that detract from the fluidity of the action. Judging from the screening audience's ecstatic reaction to Li's acrobatics, he could very easily become a star on these shores. What he needs to do now is find a director who actually believes in both his physical and dramatic skills. Wonder if it's not too late for him to get re-involved with those Matrix sequels?