It's about time; Jet Li has not had much luck in his American movies. He functioned all too easily as a simple variable in the formulas that were Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave; he was the innocent, honorable, kung fu master, mostly at the service of rappers. But his damaged character in Unleashed provides workable context for both Li's boyish reserve and his furious fists.
Li plays Danny, who has been raised as an animal by Bart (Bob Hoskins), a snarling cockney gangster. Specifically, Danny is employed as an attack dog; Bart has given him a metal collar, and taught him that when the collar comes off, it's time to maim at Bart's will. After a nasty accident sets Danny off on his own, he is cared for by blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his teenage stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon), and he begins to enter civilization. Bart, who himself rather resembles an overgrown pug, is not one to leave well enough alone.
The author of this screenplay is part-time director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional), who maintains an intimate connection with his adolescent impulses - he writes movies that sound like something you might've dreamed up as an enthusiastic teenager with a taste for international junk food. I can't comment with much authority on how good the script for Unleashed is (except that it occasionally pushes the sentiment levels too hard, too soon), because the four primary actors give their characters such charm or, in the case of Hoskins, magnetically coarse bluster, that the story seems utterly plausible.
Director Louis Leterrier, whose usefulness as the "artistic director" of The Transporter seemed dubious (Cory Yuen co-directed, and handled that film's excellent fight scenes), here slows things down - during the film's middle section, I counted only one bone-crunching fight sequence - and lets Li, Freeman, and Condon gently bond. Freeman is as saintly a mentor as ever, but in this film's pulpy milieu, what could come off as a shopworn signifier of classiness is actually classy. The Transporter creative team might prime you for some fun trash, but Unleashed wants to keep its heart.
If there's a problem with this strategy, it's only that we're nevertheless pretty eager for the newly humane Danny to be thrown into a situation where he must, at least, use his awesome powers for self-defense. I also wondered, in a few idle moments, why Bart chose a dog as model for Danny's animal instincts; dogs often lack the ability to master not running headlong into moving cars, let alone martial arts (even the most physically adept movie dogs we've seen so far can't get much beyond wisecracking or playing some sort of sport). Danny is really more like an incredibly pissed-off kangaroo.
Despite the slight tug-of-war between the story's human side and the side in which Jet Li beats the crap out of about three dozen goons at once, Unleashed is the rare martial arts picture that feels like a whole. Not only are the fight scenes, especially the climactic ones, dazzling, but you actually care about the simple things - family and ice cream, mainly - that Li is fighting for.
The DVD includes a series of making-of featurettes and interviews.
Aka Danny the Dog.
Run time: 103 mins
In Theaters: Friday 13th May 2005
Box Office USA: $24.4M
Box Office Worldwide: $50.9M
Distributed by: Focus Features
Production compaines: EuropaCorp
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 65%
Fresh: 85 Rotten: 45
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenwriter: Luc Besson
Starring: Jet Li as Danny, Morgan Freeman as Sam, Bob Hoskins as Bart, Vincent Regan as Raffles, Dylan Brown as Lefty, Tamer Hassan as Georgie, Phyllida Law as Distinguished Lady, Michael Jenn as Wyeth, Carole Ann Wilson as Maddy, Kerry Condon as Victoria, Mike Lambert as The Stranger, Puthirith Chou as Teen Danny, Jaclyn Tze Wey as Danny's Mother, Georgina Chapman as Floozy 1, Tony Theng as Little Danny, Owen Lay as Baby Danny, Andy Beckwith as Righty, Franck Xie Cheng as Baby Danny, Michael Webber as Boxing Boss, Danielle Louise Harley as Floozy 2, Affif Ben Badra as Tough man
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