The Hong Kong action cinema boom typified by explosive auteurs like John Woo & Tsui Hark saw its heyday in the mid-80s to early 90s. By the 90s that movement’s highly stylized action aesthetic had become a lucrative export, with many of its best directors being employed & imitated in Hollywood productions. By the early 2000s, it was essentially a dying art form, having given way to an entirely different style of Chinese cinema export, typified by epics like Hero & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Jet Li sci-fi vehicle The One happened to arrive in that too-late dead space. At the time, Jet Li was a Chinese-market martial arts star who was poised to make it big in America, but hadn’t quite gotten there yet. The film’s director, James Wong, was a Hong Kong-born American citizen who had more experience making American thrillers than anything resembling Hong Kong action cinema (having been responsible for two of the better Final Destination films). The hilarious thing about The One is the way it compensates for this late arrival & awkwardly inauthentic pedigree by making its soundtrack relevant to the time. The film attempts a slick, futuristic aesthetic within its late Hong Kong action cinema paradigm, but overloads its soundtrack with nu metal acts that instantly date it in the early 2000s: Drowning Pool, Papa Roach, Disturbed, etc. By the time Jet Li is fighting off an entire room of future-police to a remix of “Down with the Sickness,” The One blissfully reaches an ill-advised, self-contradictory sci-fi action cinema aesthetic of its own, one that only becomes more amusing with time.
There are more than 100 versions of Jet Li in The One’s universe(s), or at least there were before the movie’s prologue. As the opening narration explains, “There is not one universe. There are many, a multiverse.” Jet Li stars as both an interdimensional criminal hellbent on killing all other 100+ versions of himself across the multiverse and the sole good-cop version of himself left on the kill list. To put it in Hong Kong action cinema terms, it’s essentially his version of Jackie Chan’s dual role performance in Twin Dragons. This murder spree is frowned upon by the government of the Peoples of the Multiverse, who send future-cops hired to restrict interdimensional travel to catch the evil version of Li and sentence him to life on a dystopian prison planet in the Hades Universe. This proves to be a difficult task, as the remaining versions of the parallel dimension criminal become stronger with each kill, to the point where the final two copies of Jet Li are essentially in-the-flesh gods. The movie has more fun with this incredible super-strength than it does with staging scenes between the Jet Li doubles. In its most iconic moment, Evil Jet Li smashes a cop between two motorcycles like pancake, wielding the machines as if they weighed nothing, one in each arm. All this interdimensional mayhem builds to a climactic battle between the two remaining Jet Lis, of course, a minutes-long fight staged in what Ebert would frequently call a Steam and Flame Factory, the preferred setting for most action movie climaxes. No one is entirely sure what will happen if either version succeeds in killing the other and successfully becomes the titular One. One character hilariously ponders, “Some people think you’ll explode. Some people think you’ll implode.” I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to report that the movie never decides if either is true. It instead ends with Evil Jet Li trapped on the previously-mentioned Hades Universe prison planet, fighting off thousands of weaker enemies while Papa Roach sings, “It’s in our nature to destroy ourselves” on the soundtrack. Incredible.
The One drops the ball in fully exploiting its deliciously bonkers premise, mostly in denying the audiences a montage of the 100+ previous Jet Li self-kills and in delaying its Jet Li-on-Jet Li action for as long as possible. It’s so fascinating as a nu-metal era relic, though, that those shortcomings are almost beside the point. Weird jokes about an alternate dimension Al Gore presidency & gratuitous indulgences in The Matrix’s “bullet time” CGI humorously date the supposedly futuristic film just as much as its Papa Roach soundtrack. Jet Li’s on-his-way-to-stardom casting as the film’s lead(s) is just as adorably dated as a WWE-era The Rock being considered for the same part(s) or baby Jason Statham being cast as his foil. There are less-fun ways that film recalls the early 2000s as well, like the casual (and entirely extraneous) transphobia or the way it establishes its future setting by tinting everything a sickly blue. For the most part, though, it’s the film’s hilariously incongruous nu metal soundtrack that makes it an amusingly dated watch. For instance, Evil Jet Li is made to be just as much of an audience surrogate badass as Good Jet Li, serving as the ultimate power fantasy; we know this early on because when he steals a car in the first act he changes the radio station away from the oldies in disgust, preferring to listen to “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” or whatever the fuck. This dark, wicked Jet Li gets an insane amount of screen time for a murderous villain, because we’re not supposed to see him as a villain at all. He’s just a fellow nu-metal junkie who can’t get enough of those sweet Papa Roach licks, just like us. The One’s over the top parallel dimensions premise may not fully live up to the heights of Hong Kong action cinema absurdity or even the supernatural spectacle of Wong’s work in the Final Destination series, but the way that futurism dorkily clashes with its instantly dated nu-metal aesthetic is golden for a solid, campy action movie romp. It could have been great, but instead it was greatly cheesy, which is its own kind of pleasure.