2005 - R - 103 Mins.
|Director: Louis Leterrier
|Producer: Jet Li, Luc Besson and Steve Chasman
|Written By: Luc Besson
|Starring: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon and Vincent Regan
|Review by: Bill King
|Official Site: unleashedmovie.com/
After seven years of American familiarity with his name, Jet Li finally delivers a movie that people can get really excited over. 'Romeo Must Die' and 'The One' were mediocre at best, but 'Unleashed' is a raw, brutal film full of flashy martial arts scenes and an unexpected amount of drama. That Luc Besson wrote the film is a sign of optimism; he wrote the only other excellent Jet Li English-language movie, 'Kiss of the Dragon.' After seeing what these two men are capable of producing, I hope they continue their partnership.
This will knock that tattoo off your face!
Danny (Li) has been trained since childhood to be a sadistic weapon in the arsenal of Glasgow crime lord Bart (Bob Hoskins). Whenever Bart needs to raise a ruckus – mainly to beat up double-crossers – he takes Danny's collar off, a conditioning tool that allows Danny to go berserk and annihilate anyone whom Bart desires. As the movie opens, he wipes out four punks while Bart supervises the situation. This scene establishes Danny's abilities and Bart's control over him. Their relationship is a twisted one, as Bart constantly refers to Danny as a dog, keeps him in a cage and gives him canned food to eat.
Danny befriends blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) during one of his missions. Later, after he barely escapes an attempt on his life, Danny returns to Sam's place of business, where he collapses and wakes up a few days later in a strange home. Sam and his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) accept the stranger unconditionally, and though they have some questions about his past, they choose not to delve into his background. Sam feels that when Danny is ready to talk, he will.
The whole middle section of the film covers Danny’s slow transition into the civilized world. After years of harsh treatment, Danny has known only violence and mayhem. His time with Sam and Victoria, which takes place for over a month, teaches him new experiences and new ways to look at the world. Along with these experiences comes the emergence of repressed memories. He latches onto Sam strongly because his own past involved a piano.
After establishing the premise and infusing the story with sentiment, 'Unleashed' fulfills its titular declaration by delivering the kind of action Jet Li fans want to see, and in a much superior manner than anything his films have done before. As near as I could tell, there were no flagrant uses of computer effects to enhance the fight scenes (as seen in 'Romeo Must Die' and some of the later Jackie Chan flicks). Director Louis Leterrier relies on the pure talents of his stars and his editor to assemble the film’s action set pieces. Whatever assistance Leterrier might have used, it doesn’t show. (It helps that Yuen Wo Ping choreographed the fights.)
Buried underneath the film are layers of subtext pertaining to Jet Li's American career, which thus far has been unimpressive, save for 'Kiss of the Dragon.' Figuratively speaking, directors have held Li back by chains, releasing him only when an action scene is called for. Because of this, he has never delivered a worthwhile performance (he really strained to say "I am nobody's bitch!" at the end of 'The One') post-1998. Louis Letterier and Luc Besson illustrate those restraints by creating a character who is literally held back by a collar, and who will inflict punishment when his master utters "go" or "kill."
'Unleashed' refers to Danny's awakening, but it also refers to Jet Li's long-found freedom from substandard scripts. It is no coincidence that, after fulfilling his role by fighting lowlifes, Danny is kept out of sight for the majority of an early scene, which shows Bart talking to two of his toadies. The camera strategically shows only these three, while neglecting the fact that Danny is in the same car until the scene is nearly over. Danny's eventual realization that he's capable of doing so much more than grisly combat should be a signal that Jet Li will no longer star in one-note films. How long that stays true is up to him.