Unleashed


Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Unleashed
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Bad guy Bart (Bob Hoskins) gives his clients the chance to even things out and pay what they owe him. If they fail to pay up, he pulls the dog collar off of his “protégé,” Danny (Jet Li), and whispers in his ear, “Get ‘em.” Suddenly, the beast is “Unleashed.”

Robin:
Oh, boy! A Jet Li actioner with a heart! Who would have thunk it?

Unleashed” isn’t great cinema. It’s all black and white, without shading, as Bart, the baddest of bad guys, treats Danny, quite literally, as his attack dog, caging his ward and feeding him from a bowl when not using his killing machine for maiming and mayhem. Danny the Dog (the film’s original, and better, title) is uneducated, except on how to kill, and acts just as he has been treated since a boy taken in by Bart - like an animal.

Danny’s life of caged quiescence and intermittent violence is changed when he meets blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman), the first person to show him any compassion. When the unexpected happens and Danny is freed from his enslavers he seeks out Sam for help. With no questions asked, Sam nurses the injured, quiet man back to health and, with his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon), brings Danny into their family. But, just when he thinks he’s free and happy, Danny gets dragged back into his old life. Except, he is not that other person anymore.

Unleashed” is a better film than it has a right to be. The good guys, Sam and Victoria, are way too good to be true. And, Bob Hoskins has no redeeming values whatsoever as Bart. But these are the very things that make Jet Li’s “acting” debut so enjoyable and entertaining. The martial arts master, in a role made up mostly by expression and body language, does a darn good job as the mistreated and misused Danny.

Freeman, Hoskins and Kerry Condon are given two-dimensional characters but the actors give that extra something to flesh them out considerably. Bob Hoskins isn’t given anything new to do but relishes in the role of the unrepentant Bart. Morgan Freeman could do kind-hearted Sam in his sleep but he, too, is able to make the to-good-to-be-true blind piano tuner believable. Condon is near simple-minded as Victoria but I mean that in a good way as she uses her music to sooth the savage Danny.

As you would expect, the fight scenes are a-plenty and, in a departure from the current trend to wirework martial arts effects, uses traditional Hong Kong Kung Fu. Sure, Danny is attacked by 8 or 10 bad guys but they, obligingly, always come at him one man at a time. But, it sure is nice to see the old action stuff made fresh again by Jet Li and stunt coordinator Philippe Guegan. The rest of the techs are equal to the task.

Sophomore director Louis Leterrier showed some promise in his debut flick, “The Transporter,” which had elements of humor mixed with the action. That film petered out before the end but Leterrier learned a thing or two (plus having some fine thesps to work with). “Unleashed” has humor injected throughout and has a simple, entertaining story (by Luc Besson), too.

Unleashed” crosses that boundary that would normally relegate a Jet Li film to the 14 to 24 male demographic and should appeal on many levels. It does its job and does it well. I give it a B+.

Laura:
Gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins, "Beyond the Sea") has an exotic weapon that makes his collection runs unusually effective - Danny (Jet Li, "Hero") has been trained since childhood to be a killer, a literal attack dog who goes ballistic when his collar is removed.  After a horrific car accident, the wild child finds himself free and returns to the only person who's shown him kindness, Sam (Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"), a blind piano tuner who has also given him the gift of music.  Danny assimilates into a new family, but Uncle Bart is not pleased that his killer pet's gone "Unleashed."

One can find the roots of "Unleashed" in writer/producer Luc Besson's "The Professional," another sentimental tale with a childlike hit man and brutal bad guy, but "Danny the Dog" (the film's original and far superior title) plays less like an art house film and more like the drive-in genre fare of director Louis Leterrier's "The Transporter." "Unleashed" is preposterously over-the-top with its weird mixture of cuteness, innocence and extreme violence yet it is a hugely entertaining film.  Star Jet Li supplies a refreshing dose of martial arts delivered without the ubiquitous wire work.

Danny's kept locked in an underground cage, where he eats beans from the can with his fingers, does crunches towards a teddy bear and reads an alphabet book, lingering over the 'L for Love,' 'M for Mother' and 'P for Piano' pages.  When he goes out with the lads, they burst onto a scene, Bart unsnaps his collar, hisses 'get 'em' and Danny does the job quickly and dramatically.  Bart tosses Danny verbal bones, but also delivers beatings when Danny, still collared, doesn't come to his defense.  Danny becomes more lucrative for Bart, though, as an entry in private fight-to-the-death bouts, but when Bart offers Danny anything he wants and he asks for a piano, his world implodes in a sudden (so sudden it will make you jump) act of violence.  Danny wanders back to where he met Sam and collapses.

Danny comes to, finds himself in a real bed in pajamas, and crawls under it and cowers in fear. Gradually Sam coaxes him with food, while Sam's stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon, the cashier beaten by Colin Farrell in "Intermission") wins him over with an electronic keyboard.  Soon an odd family has formed, but of course Danny's past will come back to haunt them all.

Jet Li is tremendously appealing as the killer puppy dog (several women in the preview audience caved with 'aawwwwws' more than once), playing his childlike character alternately for comedy and pathos (great reaction when he takes a big bite into his first ice cream cone).  He's an absolute marvel to watch performing the fight scenes, inspiring the type of awe Jackie Chan no longer can.  (Be prepared, though, as "Unleashed's" fight scenes are brutal, complete with the sickening sound effects of bones being broken.) Bob Hoskins plays Bart like an English bulldog, rutting and barking, occasionally playful.  Morgan Freeman could play Sam in his sleep, but that makes his character no less appealing.  The off note comes from Condon, a supposed eighteen year old with a mouthful of braces and overprotective stepdad.  The actress makes Victoria seem like a ankle-socked hop-scotcher and I seriously wondered if the character was supposed to be mentally impaired.  On the other hand, Victoria's goody two-shoes overload goes hand in hand with the outrageous extremes of Besson's story.

Besson's dialogue runs from the genius ('This is gonna be one lovely day' was never more prophetic) to the groaner ('pianos are a lot like people - you pound on a person and they go out of key' - he's also pointedly set his story in a Glasgow where not a single character has a Scottish accent).  Leterrier does a great job staging the violence, especially as contrasted with the more syrupy domestic scenes.  A claustrophobic loo fight is exceptionally choreographed.  Editor Nicolas Trembasiewicz ("The Transporter") has great timing - watch the punch thrown at a boxing bag turn into the force causing a body to be thrown across a room.  Cinematographer Pierre Morel ("The Transporter") emphasizes Li's innocence by shooting down at him like a child.  His palette is a sludgy gray green throughout.  Original Music by Massive Attack and RZA provides edgy contrast to the film's classical piano pieces.

"Unleashed" is a great, goofy, visceral piece of genre filmmaking.  It's contradictory sensibilities mask its cliches and makes it feel fresh.

B
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