By Vic Holtreman
Short version: A surprisingly dramatic martial arts film.
Some may accuse me of being overly picky when it comes to movies, but I also know when to step back and look at something within the context of it's genre. I've read a couple of excerpts of reviews of Unleashed that use words like "ludicrous" and "preposterous" to describe the film. You want to talk picky? Go bother those guys.
Me, I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. Of course I went in expecting to see some cool martial arts fight scenes. What I didn't expect to see was actual drama and a great performance by Jet Li. I think the issue that some people might have with Unleashed is the fact that it straddles two (or more) movie styles instead of fitting squarely into just one category of film.
The film opens with loan shark Bart (Bob Hoskins) removing a collar from Danny (Jet Li) and unleashing him (get it?) on some less than punctual customers. It's an amazing fight scene, shot by a director that has thankfully broken the recent trend of super-close-up photography during fight sequences. The camera is actually pulled back far enough to where you can appreciate the acrobatics, power and fluidity of Li as he pummels his opponents into oatmeal. Watching him fight is truly awe-inspiring, especially knowing that he's over 40 years old. Once the damage is done, back on goes the collar.
Bart is really just a two-bit operator with a small gang to back him up who uses Danny as his Ace in the Hole. Apparently the word has gotten around and most times all he has to do is show up with Danny to get his payment. This works really well until one day when their reputation works against them and during one visit Bart is grabbed before he can unlock Danny's collar. The problem is that Danny has been raised and trained as basically an attack dog since he was a child, and has been so conditioned to the fact that collar removal = attack, that even as Bart gets beat to a pulp right in front of him, he does nothing. Eventually during this scene Bart gets the upper hand and does set Danny loose, and this is witnessed by a mysterious fellow who we know will turn up later, of course.
Without giving too much away, Danny eventually gets free of the gang and ends up with Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner and his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). They take him in and we get to see Danny slowly become human. Of course eventually Danny gets sucked back into his prior life and the last part of the film involves him trying to break free.
Along the way we have an incongrouous mix of to-the-death cage fights, touching scenes between Danny and Victoria, the growing bond between Danny and Sam, and lots of other mayhem and violence. This, I think is the problem that some critics may have with the film: It's not a straight martial arts movie, it's certainly not a realistic drama, and the concept of Danny being raised as an attack dog certainly strays into fantasy. So one might look at this film and say that at doesn't succeed on any of these levels.
I disagree, however. For me this was a great martial arts movie that was more grounded in reality than a lot of that type of fare. The story and acting made me care about the characters and enjoy the development of Danny from a shy, dog-like killing machine to a child, and finally to assert himself fully as a man.
The movie was written by Luc Besson, who was also responsible for the original (and excellent) La Femme Nikita, which also had a mix of action and drama that made you care for the characters. It was directed by Louis Leterrier, whose directorial debut was with The Transporter. That was a fun "one-viewing" action flick and it seems like it was a good warmup for this one, which is far better.
Unleashed deserves a solid 4 out 5 stars. Jet Li gave an amazing performance in my opinion, Bob Hoskins is always fun to watch, and I'll go see pretty much anything that Morgan Freeman is in. One reason I didn't go higher with my rating was the inclusion of a "ringer" in the movie who was really out of place, walking around in an all-white martial arts outfit. The fight scene with him was great, but at least put the dude in street clothes.
So sure, you have to suspend disbelief with the core concept, but there are very few action films where you don't have to do that. This wasn't a bad drama, it was an action film with a heart.
Having said that, keep in mind it's rated R and is quite violent... so before you try to have your cake and eat it too by taking your wife/girlfriend on a movie date you'll actually enjoy, make sure she won't mind the rough stuff. :-)