"Unleashed" (formerly titled "Danny the Dog"), the new action flick that was written by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Professional) and directed by Louis Leterrier, aims to be the star-making vehicle its star Jet Li has been looking for, and in many ways, it could be right on target.
I left the theater after seeing "Unleashed" with a cloud of good feeling looming over me. I've been eagerly waiting to see this movie for quite some time, as lately I have watched a number of Li's past films, Asian and American, and have come to realize that since being in the United States, his film career has been quite uneven; but things may be set straight with this new action film.
Ever since making his American debut as the main villain in "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998) and then receiving his first English-speaking leading role alongside late singer/actress Aaliyah in "Romeo Must Die" (2000), Li has quickly become the screen's most electric and sensational martial arts star. (In a few closed quarters, some even dub him as being the new Bruce Lee, but that's a wholly different matter.) His American projects have been wildly unfocused and undisciplined, being that his best effort in the United States so far is 2001's "Kiss of the Dragon," which is where Li first teamed with Besson and their partnership was on that film's screenplay.
As I sat in the darkened theater, I closely observed other people's reactions to the events unfolding on screen, which were for the most part, quite positive. Not only does this film serve the purpose of rocketing Li into American stardom, but it's also a showcase for his acting talents. (He CAN act, you know.) And it was this element that I focused on in the film, aside from the brutal fight sequences.
In "Unleashed," Li plays Danny, the human pitbull for Bart (Bob Hoskins), a particularly cold and ruthless debt collector operating in a rundown section of Glasgow. Danny does not have what we would call a "normal" human life, being that when he's not with Bart collecting debts, he spends his days living in a cage underneath Bart's office reading children's books, eating cold, canned spaghetti, and wondering why he even exists.
Danny is also Bart's #1 enforcer, his only restraint being a metal collar that he wears around his neck as a symbol of the mental prison he's confined to. If a client wishes to pay Bart, the collar stays on; if the client doesn't wish to pay, the collar comes off, and Danny is +unleashed+, attacking any and all with the primal ferocity of any caged animal, which many times leaves a room and its occupants in shambles, and eagerly willing to pay up to Bart.
When Bart is attacked by a group of unnamed thugs and presumed killed in the fray, Danny is left to fend for himself. Lacking normal survival skills, he eventually finds room and board with a kind and blind piano-tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his musically-talented and young stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon).
Danny is at first afraid of his new surroundings, but given enough time and patience, he eventually warms up to his "family." He finds solace in piano music, and Victoria shows him the side of his personality that was uncorrupted by Bart's greed. But soon enough, Bart comes around looking for his "pet," but by then Danny has grown quite attached to his new family, which he's not leaving without a fight.
Hollywood loves formula; that's a fact. But Hollywood has not seen an action movie quite like "Unleashed" in a long time, especially an action movie with such a masterful blend of good performances, action, drama, and light-hearted humor. Three brutal fights occur within the first 20 minutes, but then we move into lighter territory for a good chunk of the film, which is where Danny begins to open up and understand that there's more to life than just fighting. But we must remember that first and foremost, this is an action movie.
Jet Li puts on a performance that exercises a level of restraint and passiveness that's been noticeably lacking in his past American roles. He's first presented as a mute, possibly handicapped mentally, and unable to function outside a life of violence. But there is a human soul trapped underneath that seemingly calm facade, rugged face, and raggedy clothing.
The supporting roles are excellent, with Morgan Freeman doing what he does best as the blind man Sam, and Kerry Condon is excellent as well, with both performers able to provide a welcome counter to the film's brutal and bleak premise. Bob Hoskins is perfectly vile and sadistic as the brutal hoodlum Bart, who thinks that he may have this "dog" under wraps, but by film's end, is proved dead wrong in his arrogant assumptions about Danny.
Lastly, the fights in this movie are spectacular, if incredibly brutal and realistic. There's wirework here and there, courtesy of Yuen Woo Ping, but like Li's past films such as "Fist of Legend" (1994), it's not that easily noticeable, and some may be disappointed that the RZA/Massive Attack-produced soundtrack doesn't blast away in the background of most of the film's action scenes.
"Unleashed" is the best film of Jet Li's that I've seen yet of any past movie he's done. This will surely get him the credit he solely deserves since he has been in America and I hope that he gets it.