Unleashed

August 18th, 2005 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Directed by Louis Leterrier

Starring; Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon

Jet Li’s always had a hard time convincing in a role. Like most of the martial arts greats in the movies, as long as he’s high kicking or spinning mid air to land a blow with an explosion of dust, he’s worthy of whatever Oscar they have for Best Arse Kicking in a Motion Picture.

But call on them to portray natural-looking emotion and you’re reminded why a killer robot with no emotion or expression was the perfect role for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Most embarrassing was Li’s attempt at anguish in The One, when he became a big enough star for either himself or the producers to lobby for a weightier role for him.

In Unleashed, he’s finally found a character that suits his extremely limited acting prowess. He plays Danny, a man bought up like a dog, to the extent he wears a collar and lives in the underground storage area of a dark factory.

The factory is owned by Bart (Hoskins), a Glasgow mobster who uses Danny as an attack dog, undoing the collar when he wants to let him loose on his enemies — whom Danny proceeds to annihilate with chop socky.

But Danny is no killer, despite being trained as one — it’s just the only life he knows. It’s only when he befriends blind piano tuner Sam (Freeman) that he learns there’s such things as beauty, love and even ice cream in the world.

When fate intervenes and Danny is let loose from Bart and gang, he returns to Sam, the only other person he knows, who takes him in. Together with Sam’s stepdaughter Victoria (Condon), they form something of a family in an extended second act where Danny learns how to live, love and belong.

A chance meeting with one of his former gang in the street brings his old life crashing back, and Bart and the boys use their wiles (and threats) to bring Danny back into the fold and return him to active service for their organised crime activities, something he now finds it harder to do having tasted a little of life. When he decides where he really wants to be, the stakes become serious.

There are two ways of looking at Unleashed. The first is a deliriously satisfying martial arts movie that goes further than any other to achieve some depth. The second is a fight movie too bogged down in talk and family values — the middle forty minutes or so devoid of any violence whatsoever.

It’s a duality that’s certain to split audiences into three groups. Some will be appreciative of any scripting, story and performance (even Li’s) that inject the film with a bit of heart — carried nicely by both Freeman’s dignity and charm and Condon’s cute innocence as the father and sister Danny never had. Many more will be yawning through it all waiting for the next slugfest.

But still more will appreciate it for both qualities — under the eye of Transporter director and Luc Besson protege Leterrier, it all meshes together extremely well with good performances, tension, smiles and sweetness as well as blistering fight sequences.

Aided by one-man fight choreography brand Yuen Woo Ping, Li is a human firecracker. There are so many inspired scuffles it’s hard to pick the best; whether it’s Li vs a white-coated villain in a two-foot wide toilet, or Li vs four thugs armed with axes and chains in an underground fighting pit where punters bet on battles to the death.

If you’re a Li fan, he’ll give you better than you’ve seen before; not just in his martial artistry, but with a character he can finally get his teeth into and a story where he fits nicely along with some very well suited leads. Hoskins in particular is brilliant as the conniving and funny Bart — Del-boy from TV’s Only Fools and Horses by way of Guy Ritchie.

It’s also the first film in a long time a movie has tripped up the authoritative Internet Movie Database. Originally called Unleashed, an entry can be found with no director, only Condon and Hoskins in the cast, and the description of an early comic draft about a real dog.

Jet Li and Luc Besson came on board as production partners, it was renamed Danny the Dog (as it’s still called in other territories) and someone forgot to delete the old entry. Bad news for imdb.com, but great news for us — Li’s presence has made it something special in more ways than one.


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