The One creates an action universe with too little action and too many unanswered questions.

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In The One, director James Wong and his co-writer Glen Morgan appear to have begun with two guiding principles behind their concept. First: How can we get a big action star like Jet Li to fight against himself? Second: How can we incorporate a bunch of really cool digital special effects into a snappy theatrical trailer?

Thus was born a tale of alternate realities—a “multiverse” of dozens of worlds parallel to our own with strange but significant variations, like one where Al Gore actually won the 2000 election, or one where George W. Bush supports universal health care. And with it was born the need for an entire book dedicated to head-scratching ruminations on its sketchy premise.

See, apparently there are Multiverse Agents entrusted with making sure no one goes fiddling around with dangerous “wormhole” travel to upset the balance of all existence …

[Excerpt from Things in The One That Make You Go “Huh?” Chapter One: “Do the Multiverse Agents live in some dimension outside of time, or was this just the first of the multiple dimensions to figure out that there were, in fact, multiple dimensions? Have any of the other dimensions subsequently figured this out? Aren’t some really ugly jurisdictional skirmishes going to pop up when another dimension does finally get its own Multiverse Agents?”]

Yulaw (Jet Li), once a Multiverse Agent himself, discovers after killing another universe’s Yulaw that his own strength, speed and intelligence increase, meaning life force is being re-distributed in some multi-dimensional Ponzi scheme. So he decides to kill off all the other versions of himself, eventually leaving only Gabe (also Jet Li)—an LA sheriff’s deputy from an “uninitiated dimension” akin to our own—standing between Yulaw and either godhood or the implosion of the time-space continuum, depending on whom you listen to.

[Chapter Two: “Since Gabe also benefits physically from Yulaw’s murders, does any death of an alternate-self result in life force re-distribution, or only when a rogue Multiverse Agent is involved? Wouldn’t it have been cool to explain our own universe’s top physical specimens as those benefiting from a fortuitous alternate-self dying spree?”]

Meanwhile, Multiverse Agents Roedecker (Delroy Lindo) and Funsch (Jason Statham) stay on Yulaw’s trail to prevent his final killing. Funsch apparently is from a universe plagued by perpetual war, though we never actually get a chance to see that universe.

[Chapter Three: “Would it have been so hard to show that universe for just a few minutes, to provide some character foundation for the edgy, trigger-happy Funsch? And if the Multiverse Agents are so concerned with policing cross-dimensional travel, why was Roedecker allowed to recruit Funsch into a different dimension where, presumably, there’s also another Funsch running around?”]

The action film genre has evolved with its own set of rules. You’re not supposed to ask too many questions about the way the filmmakers structure their stories, and in exchange they’re supposed to deliver visceral thrills in satisfying quantity. They don’t have to think about it too much, so you don’t have to think about it too much. It’s a win-win scenario.

But when a film creates an entirely new reality to house its action, that kind of laziness just won’t do. If you’re not going to think your story’s internal logic through, the questions will turn the film into a nonsense-spouting Hydra—one source of confusion gets cut down, and a dozen more spring up in its place. You can’t just start with a couple of nifty set pieces in your head and cobble together an elaborate multi-dimensional reality around it. Something’s bound to unravel.

When The One trots out its action sequences—most of which you’ve probably already seen in the theatrical and television spots—there’s a fair amount of eye-popping fun. Li is such an explosive physical performer that it’s almost possible to believe that he doesn’t need computer-generated assistance to wreak Yulaw’s havoc. Whether using a motorcycle like a flyswatter or dodging literal bullets, Li infuses The One with enough energy to make up for many of Wong’s directorial shortcomings, like failing miserably at making Delroy Lindo a convincing sparring partner for Li. And when Li eventually does face off against his doppelganger in the film’s smoke-and-sparks-enhanced climax, it’s worth the wait.

Wait you shall, however, through an 80-minute film that feels both twice that long and not nearly long enough. Wong and Morgan leave plenty of dead space between action sequences, yet they refuse to fill it with exposition that actually fleshes out their multiverse concept. After just enough babble from the opening voice-over and Funsch to establish the thin idea, they give token attention to Gabe’s relationship with his wife (Carla Gugino) and the history between Roedecker and Yulaw. The One certainly isn’t alone in the annals of action filmmaking in slighting its backstory, but it just doesn’t move fast enough to justify its lack of attention to detail. It’s too easy to notice that Wong and Morgan aren’t creating a multiverse from scratch—they’re filling in a few spaces between wormholes.

Like so many contemporary Hollywood films, The One isn’t really a story at all. It’s a pitch-meeting idea for a two-minute trailer—“We can show him doing a backflip and catching an ax in mid-air!”—with a big budget. That might be enough, if it had more to sell than those two minutes. The One pretends to be creating a mythology, when all it’s really creating is a product.

[Chapter 25: “In one of these alternate universes, do the people who make movies spend more time on the script than they do on the marketing hooks?” u

The One (PG-13) H1/2 Directed by James Wong. Starring Jet Li, Carla Gugino and Delroy Lindo.

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