The One (2001) ****
As is usually the case in such matters, the party was pretty much over by the time Hollywood finally caught on that there were exciting things happening in Hong Kong. The cycle of super-violent, ultra-stylish action films that elevated directors like John Woo and actors like Jet Li to international stardom had mostly run its course by the mid-90’s, and in Hong Kong, the future basically belonged to the mass-produced sleaze of Category III. But international politics were about to step in to enable Western movie industries to cash in on the notoriety of Hong Kong action in a big way, in that Britain’s 99-year lease on the city was about to expire, and nobody in town was much looking forward to the experience of trying to make movies under the oversight of ideologically paranoid Beijing apparatchiks. Obviously, the closer the turnover date came, the more people were going to leave, and just as obviously, most of them were going to head straight for Hollywood when they did. In practice, it ended up being something of a vulture’s feast; the majority of the fleeing talent was well past its prime, and the movies they made on this side of the Pacific were, on the whole, pretty sorry affairs. It didn’t really matter, though, because by the time we’re talking about, American action movies had become so unbelievably lame that even a shitty John Woo movie— Broken Arrow, for instance— was sufficient to blow everything else on the scene completely out of the water, and thus it was that we started seeing Hong Kong affectations infiltrating even thoroughly American films. But for my purposes, the important thing is that these Hong Kong-ized Hollywood action flicks have been good only in comparison to the likes of Cyborg and Eraser.
Or so it was, at any rate, until The One arrived on the scene. Like the hugely successful (and hugely overrated) The Matrix, The One weds HK-style kung fu and gun fu to a sci-fi storyline straight out of anime. But unlike its obvious model, The One eschews trendy cyberpunk bullshit, and derives its premise from an unlikely fusion of Eastern mysticism and modern theoretical physics. In an introductory sequence that feels like it was tacked on at the insistence of producers who feared the audience wouldn’t be smart enough to make sense of the movie on its own, a voice-over explains that there is not one universe, but many, and that every living being exists simultaneously in each one, his or her various incarnations connected by a line of cosmic force. It is possible to travel between the universes, but such travel is strictly regulated, because the multiverse is a fragile system, and any serious imbalance could have a disastrous ripple effect, reaching out to touch all of the universes that comprise it. But at this very moment, somewhere in the multiverse is one man who doesn’t care in the slightest for balance, and who is, in fact, doing his damnedest to destroy balance in a dangerous quest to become The One.
From there, we go to a futuristic prison, where a futuristic LAPD is escorting a notorious prisoner-turned-stool pigeon— appropriately named Lawless (Jet Li, from The Shaolin Temple and Once Upon a Time in China)— to the convoy of heavily armored trucks that will transfer him to another, presumably safer, location. But when the cops go to load Lawless into one of the trucks, somebody opens fire from inside a ventilation duct running across the ceiling of the garage. Several policemen go down, and Lawless takes a bullet to the head. And when the remaining officers go on the offensive, they get one heavy-duty shock: the man who killed Lawless is Lawless!
Actually, it’s not quite that simple. The killer’s real name is Yulaw, and he is Lawless’s double from another universe. And oddly enough, he’s got some serious superhuman powers. There’s a very good reason for this, as it happens. Yulaw has been traveling all over the multiverse offing his duplicates, and each time he does, that line of cosmic force the narrator told us about gets shorter, concentrating its power in the remaining incarnations. No one’s really sure just what will happen when all the energy of 125 life-forces is contained in a single body, but Yulaw favors the hypothesis that such unity is another name for godhood, and he’s determined to find out for sure, whatever the consequences. Lawless was the next-to-last of Yulaw’s other selves, and in that light, the incredible speed, strength, and agility that Yulaw displays while kicking the crap out of the policemen trying to apprehend him seems rather less surprising. Yulaw has bigger things to worry about than the LAPD, however, because he’s also being trailed by Roedecker (Delroy Lindo, who also played opposite Li in Romeo Must Die) and Funsch (Ghosts of Mars’s Jason Statham), a pair of Multiverse Agents. Think of them as a sort of interdimensional FBI. Roedecker and Funsch, after a short but intense chase, succeed where the conventional cops fail, and haul Yulaw in for punishment in his native universe.
This would be an awfully short movie if everything went according to plan, though, so Yulaw still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. One of the spectators at his sentencing hearing (Yulaw is to be incarcerated for life at a penal colony in the ominously named Hades Universe) knows Yulaw, and has come to court with a white rat hidden in her shoe (I’m completely serious). This rat has been rigged with a small but powerful bomb (I’m still completely serious), which goes off shortly before the wormhole to Hades opens. In the resulting confusion, Yulaw is able to reprogram the dimension jump device to send him somewhere else— the universe where the last of his other selves lives.
So, do you think that universe is going to be ours? Sure it is. And by way of introduction, we are treated to a fascinating reprise of the scenario played out in the first scene. Here on our Earth, Gabe Law (Li again) is one of the cops, but the situation— an informant who needs to be transferred to a safer prison, Yulaw hiding in a vent duct, a TV in one of the offices playing an address from the president (it was Al Gore in the other universe)— is fundamentally the same. But here, Yulaw faces a thoroughly trained, armed and armored opponent, whose hands are not cuffed behind his back, and the assassination attempt doesn’t go so well. The first confrontation between Yulaw and Gabe ends in a draw, and the dimension-jumping killer escapes, leaving a baffled Gabe to struggle with the puzzle of an exact duplicate of himself with superhuman abilities.
Actually, Gabe has those abilities, too— he just doesn’t know what they are, how he got them, or how to control them. He and his wife, T. K. (Carla Gugino), think maybe he’s got some kind of exotic disease, and after all the excitement is more or less over, Gabe finally submits to having an MRI performed at the same hospital where his buddies who were wounded in the shoot-out have been sent. Naturally, Yulaw follows him in, and ambushes him in the middle of his scan. But Roedecker and Funsch have followed, too, and soon Gabe finds himself in his second shootout of the evening, as Yulaw and the Multiverse Agents exchange gunfire in the hospital. The big problem for Gabe is that some of his fellow cops see Yulaw with pistol blazing, either in person or over the hospital’s security cameras, and they figure Gabe’s gone berserk. Sure does suck to be him right about now.
And it’s only going to suck more as the movie progresses. Not only are Yulaw and his own colleagues on the force after him, Funsch and Roedecker are sworn to kill Gabe in the event that it becomes necessary to kill Yulaw! The idea here is that the agents’ ultimate mission is to prevent anybody from becoming One, and whether it’s the sociopathic Yulaw or his nice-guy double matters not a bit. Thus Gabe’s natural allies in the situation are just as big a danger to him as Yulaw or his fellow cops.
The best thing about The One is that it never flinches from the implications of this scenario. (Well, most of them anyway. It completely ignores the niggling little detail that, in the absence of some mechanism to insure the simultaneous deaths of all 125 of an individual’s parallel incarnations, millions of people would naturally become One every day.) Gabe can’t really fight the cops because he’s one of them himself, but he realistically has no hope of convincing any of them of what’s really going on. He knows that Yulaw will probably have to be killed, but once he hooks up with Funsch, and learns the full truth of what he’s up against, he also knows that killing Yulaw will necessarily mean his own death as well. And because, in the finest Asian tradition, none of the characters, no matter how important, are safe from becoming collateral casualties of Yulaw’s quest for cosmic self-actualization, Gabe will eventually find himself in the position of actively seeking his foe’s death, fully accepting that the price will be his own. In other words, The One calls attention to what has been sorely lacking in action movies of late— a believable, internally logical story, populated by believable, authentically human characters for whom the stakes really are as high as that deep-throated voice-over on the trailer would like us to believe. With that in its favor, The One easily rises above its sometimes inexplicably weak action sequences (I have to question the sense of taking a kung fu guy whose main claim to fame is his dizzying speed, and then shooting all his fight scenes in slow-motion) and tiresome computer-enhanced camera tricks (I dearly wish they’d never learned how to do that revolve-the-camera/digital-slow-mo thing) to prove that at least a few people in Hollywood are capable of learning the real lessons of Hong Kong’s turn-of-the-90’s action boom, rather than just ripping off that John Woo guns-in-each-other’s-faces standoff set-piece yet again.