“Probably the best martial artist in the world…Who can be a better villain than himself?” – James Wong.
Let’s talk about James Wong. The name may or may not sound familiar to you, but James Wong has had an interesting career writing and directing properties well-steeped in popular culture across the last 30 years. Whether it’s towards the start of his career working on things such as 21 Jump Street, or in the prime of The X-Files and Millennium (I suppose some people watched the latter…), or even to the present day working on American Horror Story and…the unfortunate existence of the newer seasons of The X-Files, James Wong has had a strong hand influencing some of the standout shows across the decades.
In the world of film however, hoo boy. He started strong directing Final Destination (which is a surprise but no shock to discover actually started life as an X-Files spec script written by Jeffrey Reddick) and he hasn’t directed a movie since 2009’s Dragonball Evolution. That downward feature film trajectory says it all. His sophomore directorial outing however is the most curious time capsule for such a precise strain of DNA for the year 2001: The One, starring Jet Li.
Written by Wong and long-time collaborator Glen Morgan (the two having worked across TV and every one of Wong’s film projects except for Dragonball), The One is the quintessential blend of Highlander meets The Matrix: Brilliant on paper, but an imperfect yet joyful disaster on film.
It’s a premise so simple it’s boiled down in the first few seconds of the movie via narration over graphics zooming across the screen illustrating the concept:
“There is not one universe. There are many. A Multiverse. We have the technology to travel between universes, but travel is highly restricted and policed. There is not one you. There are many. Each of us exists in present time, in parallel universes. There was balance in the system, but now a force exists who seeks to destroy the balance…So he can become The One.”
Jet Li plays dual roles here; rocking both the evil Gabriel Yulaw and the good Gabe Law (not to mention a handful of alternate reality versions of the character in increasingly hilarious wigs) and it must be said, while the film hits things over the head with ideas of duality, small details such as their different fighting styles (aggression over peacefulness) feel inspired. It even evokes Li’s older work, such as Twin Warriors/Tai Chi Master, where Li plays a character that adapts and evolves his fighting style to counteract his counterpart and lifelong friend-turned-rival.
Who am I kidding though, there is nothing subtle about The One, and that’s what makes it such a fun watch. There’s just something about the 90s and early 2000s in regards to action movies, where they live in this odd time capsule of silliness and irrelevance, dotted around with genuine landmark classics such as Terminator 2 and The Matrix. There are films that redefine the genre such as those, and there are others that are streamlined fun.
It’s interesting how the films of that era differ from the mediocre average of action movies of more recent years, where that feeling of fun and not taking themselves too seriously has been ejected in preference for muddy film grading and taking things waaay too seriously. There’s something there to be explored in the future, but to use a quote from James Cameron on the thought of there ever being a sequel to 1994’s True Lies:
“There are no plans for a True Lies 2. I don't know about the creative direction thing... I'm always down for a good action/comedy (actually we always classified the film as a 'domestic epic'). But since September 11, I've never felt comfortable generating laughs with nuke-toting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. True Lies, even though it has a cautionary thread underneath the pratfalls, is in a strange way a product of a more innocent time”
The One rides the line as close as it can. It was released in the US on November 2nd 2001, not even a month after 9/11, and you can instantly tell it’s just before the turn in Hollywood because of all George Bush references it could make it’s the most passive and used purely for quick world-building: In one universe Al Gore is President, and in the other George Bush is. That’s all that matters with the politics of The One.
This is a film that has more interest in parallel universes where things are familiar, but only slightly different. There isn’t a complete change in the world’s landscape, but rather if Jet Li’s character has a blonde wig or a horribly racist one on. I mean this is also a movie that has a Hades universe, which just sounds like and actually is just a prison universe for people who cause…dimension crime?
Ridiculous is the best word to describe The One, but it’s not to its detriment. Jet Li’s character absorbs the power of other Jet Li characters, but so do the other survivors. Its set up and its paid off wonderfully, allowing us to realise that our hero Jet Li can match wits with the villain. And it’s not just Li who wants to take on Li, however, but we also have our Multiverse Authority (the dimension version of Timecops, clearly) hot on Li’s tail, played by Delroy Lindo and a Jason Statham with hair!
On top of all that, there’s no way either Jet Li can be murdered, because there’s a big fear that that would cause a collapse of every universe (though one has to note: For there being multiple universes, there’s only the set number of around 125? So what, no universe where it rains doughnuts?)
Plus, on top of that, I haven’t even told you that absorbing the power of all the other versions of themselves, Jet Li’s able to bend jail cell bars, run over 50mph, scale giant walls, uppercut people in slow motion, and win Carla Gugino’s heart in every universe? Even big bad evil Li, who gets Gugino to break him out of being exiled to the Hades dimension (yes I am typing this seriously, it’s not even the good part yet) by using a rat she smuggles in her high-heels, trained to walk over to a window and detonate a massive explosive.
Yup, this was the end of the good times.
But most memorable of all, most exact of the era of the early 2000s, more than an issue of Kerrang! or a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game…is the soundtrack. It is glorious. Gloriously bad, cheesy, entertaining, obnoxious, idiotic, silly, hilarious, exciting, fun…It is everything. Imagine a rock/metal night at your local club. Not the proper classics, but the “classics”. Have you thought of some? Did they include:
“Bodies” by Drowning Pool
“Down with the Sickness” by Disturbed
“Last Resort” by Papa Roach?
And you know what? It goddamn works. Evil Jet Li does not have a theme, like Darth Vader, or The Terminator. He lets the bodies hit the floor to Drowning Pool. His explosive rat escape begins with the iconic throat sounds of Down with the Sickness. James Wong clearly wrote and/or directed this movie with such a specific vision, with a specific soundtrack during production, that he has somehow caught the lightning of this year in pre 9/11 culture in a bottle.
Jet Li’s The One is not a good movie. It’s another example of how Jet Li’s career in the US has nothing on a single Hong Kong entry of his. It’s a post-Matrix, pre-9/11 movie that responds in the way you’d expect it to be in that small grace period of Hollywood. It’s a sign of James Wong making the fun martial arts action epic with a nice X-Files lilt to it. Much like Final Destination feels exactly like an all-timer X-Files episode, The One feels like the big budget, more fun version of an episode of later, pre-reboot X-Files. Back when The X-Files got self-aware. The movie has that feeling all the way down to the partnership of a curious division of law enforcement and detectives teaming up with an innocent of the world to take on something supernatural.
For as much of a guilty pleasure joke Jet Li’s The One is, looking back at it makes looking at your average action movies of today frustrating. We do have our masterpieces, the Matrix-like landmarks of cinema still. Hell, Keanu came back to the well and reinvigorated it with John Wick. We got a mind-blowing Mad Max movie. The Raid was a cross-over martial arts flick much like the Jet Li and Jackie Chan movies of decades past. But we don’t have enough of the stupid, ridiculous, not great but gleefully stupid fun anymore. Off the top of my head, all I really have is Michael Bay (Don’t. We’ll get to him.), the Fast and Furious franchise, and direct to video stuff. Probably a few other outliers.
But in 2019, we have Gemini Man. A movie that on paper sounds exactly like the The One for the modern day. Hell, the concept for the movie started way before, in 1997, before the technology had even caught up and before Will Smith was the eventual lead over a dozen other choices. Gemini Man is very much more of a tech demo of a movie of a more sombre tone than it really should be. Ang Lee is a damn fine director who wants to take risks and try new technologies, which is admirable. None of us really can see a film like that in 120 frames per second anywhere, but the fact that he still does it, I respect that. The problem with Gemini Man other than when the great special effects sometimes become very ropey is that it is taking itself way too seriously for an idea that can be mined for entertaining gold.
Gemini Man was first born the year Face/Off came out. After all the years, rewrites, directors, actors, and the shifting landscape of both Hollywood and society, Gemini Man is unfortunately not the product of that simpler time. The cartoonish-ness of it is ignored for the themes of clone armies being made so our real soldiers don’t have to go off and fight in wars and come back dead or worse. Our villain’s plan is based on concepts that are too real. And our heroes are too serious to deal with the fact that we have two Will Smiths, maybe even more. The Fresh Prince vs the guy who turned down Django Unchained. The guy who went to Men in Black to Bad Boys II to Bright.
Cinema changes, it evolves, it reflects popular culture and it reflects the world around us. The fun isn’t entirely gone, nor has the films that are obnoxious, stupid, guilty pleasures. It just feels like the films that should be the fun fare to take our minds off the world outside aren’t, and while cinema is always improving, adapting, evocative…We need more theme parks.
Not just Disneyland, but the daft seaside ones you sometimes go to and throw disposable income at and you can still have a fun time. Maybe there’s another universe where that exists, take me there Jet Li.