USA 2001 : James Wong : 87 mins
A thoroughly daft, thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi kung-fu comedy from the people who brought you the thoroughly daft, thoroughly enjoyable horror comedy Final Destination. Wong’s humour isn’t in your face in a Scary Movie / Scream way – the director and his scriptwriting partner Glen Morgan aren’t in the spoof business. What they do is much trickier: while they clearly don’t take their b-movie material at all seriously, neither do they look down on their chosen genres. Their films are, instead, played relatively ‘straight’, presuming that the audience is in on the gag.
This approach has proven too subtle for many reviewers – Final Destination was mauled by most critics, and a similarly hostile reception has greeted The One. Writing in the hugely influential Variety magazine, Robert Koehler opened both barrels on the movie, castigating what he described as “its resounding lack of humour.” Humour, it seems, squarely resides in the funny-bone of the beholder: this reviewer could barely keep the smile from his face for most of the nippy running time. The next Wong-Morgan collaboration – a remake of the 70s rodent-opus Willard with Crispin Glover – can’t arrive too soon.
As The One‘s deadpan opening narration informs us, our universe is just one among more than 100 universes, a new one being formed whenever a black hole collapses (or something). People live parallel but separate existences within these 125 universes (the more mathematically justifiable figure of 128 being (typically) rejected by Wong and Morgan.) Travel between the different zones of the ‘multiverse’ is possible, but closely restricted – until the villainous Yulaw (Jet Li) accesses the technology necessary to travel through the various ‘wormholes’. He’s discovered that if he kills his parallel personalities, the survivors’ faculties progressively boosted to increasingly superhuman levels. Having eliminated 123 personae, he targets LA cop Gabriel Law (Li again), the final obstacle to his assuming god-like powers as The One. Further complications are provided by Gabriel’s wife TK (Carla Gugino), plus a pair of ‘multiverse cops’ hot on Yulaw’s trail, Roedecker (Delroy Lindo) and Funsch (Jason Statham).
The high-concept scenario is very reminiscent of Philip K Dick’s earlier sci-fi novels – especially Eye in the Sky which, like The One, kept having its characters emerging from various alternate universes by waking up in pain on a laboratory floor. Unlike Dick, however, Morgan and Wong aren’t especially interested in exploring the more creative possibilities of their idea: the multiverse shenanigans is just an excuse to have Jet Li fighting himself. though to their credit this is perhaps the first film to come up with a plausible explanation for the Matrix-style powers which now seem to be taken for granted in all fantasy-tinged action movies.
It’s ironic, then, that the fight sequences are the least interesting aspect of The One. With the exception of the gangbusters opening scene, in which Yulaw makes his hyper-kinetic entrance, the action set-pieces feel as perfunctory as the over-familiar sportz-metal soundtrack that drives them along – even the climactic showdown between Nasty Jet Li (who scowls) and Nice Jet Li (who frowns) is strictly by the numbers. Nor are the special effects anything to write home about – the most original and visually striking touches comes when the characters travel through the wormholes, and they dissolve upwards into space in an unexpectedly messy fashion.
These de-materialisations are, however, very amusing to watch – and it’s the humour that makes The One so relentlessly entertaining. It comes in all kinds of forms – Wong and Morgan give all the incredibly complex and copious exposition to Funsch: the film’s most inarticulate character, played by an English actor desperately struggling to sound like a hard-boiled American (a trick that his on-screen partner Lindo learned many years ago). There are some real gems in the dialogue: “Schizophrenia doesn’t just kick in!” yelps an stressed doctor, and also a spicy strain of sexual innuendo: “You’ve been feeling him, haven’t you?” Funch asks a bemused Gabriel at one point – the subtext breaking the surface in the delirious final shot as Yulaw snarls “I’m nobody’s bitch” to an unimpressed horde of advancing gulag-inmates.
There’s a ‘celebrity’ cameo from Mark American Movie Borchardt as a fainting medic, and masses of throwaway visual gags – watch how Wong uses light in the scene where TK confers with one of Gabriel’s fellow cops as they walk down a hospital corridor. Even a road-accident involving a cute dog, which this reviewer would normally find distressingly offensive (cf Royal Tenenbaums) is played with such a shamelessly corny knowingness you can’t help yourself from laughing. Unless your name happens to Robert Koehler, of course.
8th April, 2002
(seen same day, Warner Village, Newcastle)
by Neil Young
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