Generally speaking, Jet Li’s western films have been hampered by indecision on the part of the filmmakers as to how to handle his onscreen persona. Since English is not Li’s first language, he is typically relegated to playing a stone-faced killer required only to beat the crap out of everyone he sees. Thus, I suspect that producers fear that Western audiences would have a hard time buying Li in a sensitive role. In “Unleashed” (aka “Danny the Dog” in Europe), Li plays yet another martial arts murder machine, but this time there’s a surprisingly competent story and a strong supporting cast to back him up.
Li plays Danny, an orphan raised as a personal attack ‘dog’ by a Cockney loan shark he calls Uncle Bart (a menacing Bob Hoskins). Bart keeps Danny in a collar and locked inside a cage, and has trained Danny so that he’s docile while wearing a collar, but transforms into a whirling dervish of destruction when the collar comes off. Bart has a sweet scheme going whereby he uses Danny to bludgeon debt payments out of delinquent clients, and in return only has to provide food and a cage.
After a gangland confrontation goes horribly wrong, Danny escapes from his master and finds refuge with Sam (Morgan Freeman, “Million Dollar Baby”), a blind piano tuner from New York who has moved to Glasgow so his teen stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) can study music. Exposed to the first bit of kindness he can remember, Danny learns about everyday wonders like cooking, shopping and ice cream. Alas, Wonderland is fleeting, and Bart soon relocates his missing ‘dog’…
As a scriptwriter, Luc Besson (“Leon”) has always exhibited a vivid imagination, but one countered by an inability to manage narrative coherence. In the case of “Unleashed,” Besson has put together a story that manages to balance brutality and sentimentality surprisingly well. Following the tried and true three act structure, Besson provides an exposition mirroring the premise used in “Conan The Barbarian” that erupts with sly cruelty and bone crushing action, followed by a mushy middle third that follows the trite ‘awakening of the man-child’ arch.
And just as this sugar train is about to turn saccharine, Besson shifts into high gear with an all-out finale that highlights action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping’s masterful fight choreography. It’s pretty simple and straightforward stuff, but Besson seems to have put his nose to the grindstone and thought this one through, even managing to garnish the screenplay with a few clever touches, such as a running gag where Danny repeatedly interferes with Bart’s attempts to bed down a string of high price escorts.
One of the reasons “Unleashed” works so well is the supporting cast, with Freeman and Hoskins both excellent in their respective roles. Freeman in particular is the epitome of geniality and decency, and is an actor that most would consider to be well above this sort of material. And yet here he is, bringing a sense of good-natured warmth that breathes life into every scene he’s in.
Hoskins, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of Freeman. Brutish, obnoxious and antagonistic, he’s perfect as the rotund low-level gangster with visions of greatness riding on Danny’s iron fists. Hoskins smartly doesn’t let his performance descend into caricature, reining the character in with a chilling layer of cruelness and methodical sanity. This becomes frighteningly clear during the final confrontation between Bart and Danny, where we see how truly twisted the relationship between slave and master really is.
As the effervescent Victoria, Kerry Condon acquits herself well despite being saddled with a character of limited scope. She and Freeman make a believable family with the easy nature of their banter, and her attempts to teach Danny the piano are touching. As for Li, he delivers what we expect from him, but also manages to imbue Danny with an endearing, child-like innocence that leads to several instances of subtle humor. And while Li seems to be emoting more than acting, we don’t get the sense that he’s trying to “act,” which makes the character easier to accept.
“Unleashed” isn’t without problems, though. The middle section, which starts off brilliantly, does eventually begin to feel like it’s running in places. There are only so many scenes of shopping for ripe melons and eating ice cream that we need to see before we get the point. The revelation of Danny’s past is also too contrived, and the relationship between Danny and Victoria bears the signs of an aborted romantic thread. I’m glad Besson decided not to go down this particular path (the least of my reasons being that Li is 42 and Condon is in her teens), but what we get is half-baked, at best.
As for the action, it’s first rate all the way. The legendary martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (“The Matrix” films) puts together some seriously brutal combat sequences that highlights Li’s lightning moves, while at the same time using a minimum of ‘wire-fu.’ The highlight is an extended fight towards the end that spans three buildings and involves some very close quarters combat in a bathroom. Overall, the fights do their job, which is to keep the energy high and the viewer riveted.
Most of all, “Unleashed” has what no previous Anglo Jet Li film has had: a solid script and a strong supporting cast. Freeman and Hoskins bring credibility, and the script by French auteur Luc Besson has enough subtle, good-natured humor to keep the potentially dark mood in check. It goes without saying that “Unleashed” doesn’t bring anything new to the table; even so, the film succeeds despite itself, owed in no small part to its ability to execute its familiar formula extremely well.
Louis Leterrier (director) / Luc Besson (screenplay)
CAST: Jet Li …. Danny
Morgan Freeman …. Sam
Bob Hoskins …. Bart
Kerry Condon …. Victoria