Twenty years before movie superheroes grew obsessed with the multiverse, one action star from Hong Kong dared to traverse dimensions first. And all this time later, Jet Li’s still done it the best.
From its wide-open embrace of its ridiculous premise to nu metal needle drops curated by a suburban teenager, this weird 2001 movie — with arguably the single greatest closing shot in action movie history — had no pretense of being anything more than it was: A way to see Jet Li kick his own ass.
At the height of his Hollywood popularity in the early 2000s, Jet Li starred in The One. With both Marvel and DC offering heaping servings of multiverse stories this year, including Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and The Flash, now is a good time to seek out a film that roundhouse kicked the multiverse before capes did.
Written by X-Files producers Glen Morgan and James Wong, and directed by Wong, The One stars Jet Li as both hero and villain. The movie opens in an alternate reality (hilariously, Al Gore is President) where we meet Li as “Yulaw,” a trans-dimensional criminal on a feverish mission to murder all of his multiverse variants and absorb their life energy to become an elite superhuman known as “The One.” We later meet Gabe Law, a noble Los Angeles cop and the last of the variants standing between Yulaw and maximum power.
On its surface, The One is a ridiculous romp inspired by edgy comic books and bad science fiction. Below the surface, it’s still that. It makes the very bold and very bad choice to bury the legitimately talented Jet Li under an abundance of CGI, turning a man who could actually jump and kick into a cartoon character who jumps and kicks.
But The One succeeds through its swagger. While nothing in it offers anything close to what fans have seen from Li in his prime in epics like 1991’s Once Upon a Time in China or 1994’s Fist of Legend, the movie epitomizes the early-aughts with its steel blue color grading and nu metal soundtrack. The latter is unusual for the martial arts genre, but thrilling as a relic of cultural crossovers. Like other movies that coast on the loosely-defined quality of “vibes,” The One achieves its singular mission through sheer determinism.
Alongside Li in this outrageous movie is a stacked cast who elevate the material a few inches higher than the script alone can reach. Future headliner Jason Statham and Delroy Lindo, whose breathtaking work in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods deserved an Oscar, ensure there’s more to see in The One that Jet Li smacking dudes to Disturbed.
Carla Gugino, who’s found more recent fame in Mike Flanagan’s Netflix horror dramas, is also unexpectedly complimentary to Li as his wife, T.K., commanding femme fatale looks and a whispery speaking voice that lends her a shade of the ethereal. While the two don’t share so much as a kiss, the pairing feels like a preview to Hollywood’s later embrace of Asian actors as romantic leads. Jet Li walked so Henry Golding could run, and Jet Li walks a mile in The One.
The One is not a thoughtful movie. But in its premise, and with Li in the lead role, one could see a surface-level reinterpretation of Li’s own Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. Yulaw and Gabe Law practice opposing martial arts disciplines; Yulaw uses Xing Yi Quan, a form of Chinese kung fu characterized by hard, linear movements, while Gabe Law uses the comparatively more fluid and circular Baguazhang. The opposition of hard versus soft, straight versus circular underlines a kind of balance at play within The One. Of course, you don’t need to think too hard about any of that. Before Jet Li, The One was meant to star Dwayne Johnson, at the time still fresh from his wrestling career, which would have made the evocations of Buddhism less obvious.
With the multiverse all the rage these days, The One is more than worth a visit. It’s Jet Li in his prime working alongside a cadre of exceptional co-stars; outside of Iko Uwais’ career, we may never again see a born-and-bred star from Asia work with American talent like Gugino and Lindo. And we’ll definitely never see a movie rock a soundtrack with wall-to-wall bangers of the Napster age again. If the multiverse has you weary, let The One give you new life.
The One is streaming now on Netflix.