Before watching the movie:
From the first time I heard about this movie, I was vaguely interested in the reality-hopping concept, but I wasn’t into martial arts movies and so I wasn’t all that attracted to it. What I know about the movie hasn’t really changed, I’m mostly just warmer to Kung fu films in general, and also I’m a little more aware of Jet Li’s work.
Apparently the movie was originally meant for Dwayne Johnson, who would’ve been very different, but I also would’ve been less familiar with 20 years ago.
After watching the movie:
Across the multiverse, there are many alternative versions of each person, and the MultiVerse Agents maintain that balance. Gabriel Yulaw, formerly an MVA agent, previously had a mission where he was forced to kill an alternate version of himself, and as a result, the life energy of that version was divided among the rest of his parallels, leading him on a quest of over two years to kill every other version of himself and achieve godlike power as The One. Now, the only one left is Gabe Law, an LA County Sheriff’s Department officer who’s been concerned in the past several months about his strength, agility, and intuition heightening inexplicably. During a prisoner transfer, Gabe is ambushed by an assailant who is not interested in the informant they’re protecting, but is targeting him instead, and who is somehow identical to himself. Describing the encounter to his wife TK, she convinces him to have an MRI to get to the bottom of what’s happening to him, and during the scan, Yulaw attacks again, but is cornered by the two MVA agents on his tail. Unable to kill Yulaw because either Gabe would take the full power of The One or the multiverse could unravel, the agents are overpowered by Yulaw, who Gabe’s fellow police officers assume is Gabe having a mental break, making Gabe now a fugitive in his own universe. The two agents split up, Rodecker after Yulaw and Funsch protecting Gabe. Both alternates heading to Gabe’s house, where his wife is expecting him.
I do find it a strange part of the worldbuilding that there are exactly 125 alternate versions of a person across the entire multiverse. I think the introduction describes the version of multiverse theory where every decision splits universes, and even though that’s a very limited and anthropocentric conception of it, 125 still seems very low. It had to be something doable, in a matter of months, but 125 seems so specific. It’s not even a power of 2, which feels innately more natural, especially for a world multiplied by coinflip decisions. It’s also stated that alternate universes, or at least the wormholes between them, are formed when a star collapses, but that also seems like it’s orders of magnitude short. I do appreciate the slight use of the multiverse concept to explore second chances and roads not taken, but it’s mostly just an excuse to have the star fight himself.
In retrospect, I think there was only one direct Jet Li on Jet Li fight, but I have to say that halfway through that fight, I realized I had forgotten that there was only one Jet Li. I’m someone who is always watching for the effects tricks, with a special interest in doubling actors, and I forgot to notice that one was always facing away from the camera in the big fight, which is really tough to choreograph between two sparring combatants and the camera together in constant motion. I later learned that they did do face replacement, with the double’s face painted green to make it easier to key. That’s not a solution I would have thought possible, especially in 2001. If nothing else, that’s a major success of this movie.
There’s really not much story to engage with underneath the multiverse setting and fight scenes. I did care a fair bit about Gabe’s relationship with T.K. and I’m not really okay with how that ended up. Gabe’s entire life got trashed, and his happy ending was pretty much just “have another one, on the house”. There was a chance at a bit of a character arc for Gabe coming to accept the power that Yulaw’s rampage gave him and learning to control it, but he ultimately just steps up when the moment calls for it, and despite his end of act 2 grief, he doesn’t really have much evolution aside from going from scared and bewildered to an untethered, zenlike acceptance of whatever comes. This is somewhat excusable by the fights being so good, but it’s always possible to do better.
This movie is a ride. Accept it as it comes, and it’s a lot of fun. There’s not as much as I’d like below the surface, but the surface is pretty amazing.