Rating: **** out of ****
If I'm always skeptical of Jet Li's English-speaking films, it's for good reason. They're usually crap. Too often, he's either been put in the hands of incompetent directors who couldn't properly film or edit his impressive martial arts abilities and/or he's teamed alongside a cast that includes one rapper too many. It also didn't help that these movies were poorly written and acted, failing to work as either a showcase for Li's moves or his charisma. So it's all the more satisfying that Unleashed goes through its entire running time without succumbing to any single one of these flaws.
Jet Li stars as Danny, a fully grown man with the mind of a child who is a literal slave/pet to Bart (Bob Hoskins), a Glasgow mob boss who keeps Danny in a cage and uses him as a form of "persusasion" to those who owe him money. Like a dog, Danny wears a collar, shy and seemingly dumb whenever it's clasped around his neck, but a ferocious killer once he's unleashed.
After a mishap with another criminal, Bart and Danny are left for dead, leaving an injured Danny to crawl to a warehouse where he's taken under the wing of kindly blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). Starting over with a clean slate, Danny comes to enjoy his new life and loving family; no longer is violence or cruelty something he must face everyday. But fate hands him an unlucky turn when he's forced to confront Bart, finding no choice but to give in to his violent side one last time.
The film's premise, that of a violent man finding a better life, is nothing new but rarely have I seen the simple but effective premise delivered so well and with such genuine heart. To my immense surprise, it's Jet Li's performance that anchors the film, showing us a side of corrupted innocence and child-like enthusiasm that is sweet, moving, and occasionally even quite humorous. The transformation and natural maturity Danny undergoes is engaging, and it's to no small measure of Li's performance that we hope Danny can entirely shed his former life even when we know it'll inevitably catch up with him.
Li is surrounded by a fantastic cast with great actors Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins pulling their own weight. Freeman delivers as always, playing the kindly authority figure with firm but gentle resolve. Hoskins is over-the-top but suitably so as Bart, whom we're quite sure is complete scum, yet one can't dismiss the fact that he holds Danny in a certain esteem, and that he may actually be the only person in the world Bart cares for, however twisted a manner he chooses to show it. Relative newcomer Kerry Condon is cute and appealing, although she could just as easily have won me over with that great smile of hers.
As a kick-ass action film, Unleashed is superb. The ratio of action to story might be a bit less than hardcore martial arts fans desire, but there's no question every facet of the plot bolsters the fight scenes, giving every battle a palpable and underlying current of emotion that adds to the thrills of the spectacle. And spectacular action this is; every fight scene-most especially the brutal opening sequence and the thrilling, almost emotionally exhausting climax-is brilliantly filmed and edited, wisely emphasizing Li's natural abilities in favor of quick-cuts and wirework. There are a few instances of Matrix-style slow motion, but the spare usage works to the film's advantage. There's even a terrific fight scene inside a tiny bathroom that far outdoes a similar scene in The Matrix.
An absolute winner on almost every conceivable level (the exception being that the title should be changed back to Danny the Dog, but I'm not going to hold that against the movie), Unleashed delivers some of the best action scenes I've seen to go hand-in-hand with memorable characters I adored and a story that riveted me from start to finish. I should also not slight director Louis Leterrier, who puts it all together with the right mix of strong style and natural storytelling. Why can't all action films be this good?