France/United States/United Kingdom/Hong Kong, 2005
U.S. Release Date:
R (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon
Unleashed is two radically different movies fused into one. On their own, each of the films might have stood a chance of working, but, brought together in concert, the radical shifts in tone create a weird dichotomy that will distract and disorient some viewers. As if that isn't bad enough, the storyline contains elements that are so patently ridiculous that you half-expect members of Monty Python's troupe to show up on screen to say, "And now for something completely different…"
Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) and screenwriter Luc Besson (The Professional) make unmistakable use of the three-act structure. The divisions are clear. Act I is grim and violent. Act II is a twist on Pygmalion. Then the violence is back with a vengeance in Act III. One senses that those who appreciate the middle 45 minutes of the film will be turned off by the bookend sections. And actor Jet Li's core constituency, which expects lots of martial arts fight scenes, will be mystified by why the film eliminates those elements for more than half of its running length. Those expecting a typical action movie may find themselves drifting off to sleep around Unleashed's midpoint.
If Unleashed deserves praise, it's for being different. Leterrier and Besson press forward, heedless of whether they're bringing the audience with them. When the movie is kinetic, the action is furious. When it's dramatic, it radiates an old-fashioned sweetness. The two divergent elements sort-of meet in the film's climactic 20 minutes, but their wedding is an unsettled and uncertain affair. I sense that it's bad to have both testosterone and estrogen pumping through the bloodstream at the same time.
Jet Li is Danny, a martial arts enforcer who has been trained by mobster Bart (Bob Hoskins) to attack without mercy whenever his dog collar is removed. (Insert obligatory S&M joke here.) Danny is Bart's hound: docile when wearing the collar, but feral and relentless when it is taken off. Bart treats the younger man like an animal, keeping him caged and occasionally throwing him scraps of food. One day, one of Bart's misdeeds catches up with him, and Danny finds himself free. A blind piano tuner, Sam (Morgan Freeman), befriends him and offers him a place to stay. Together, Sam and his 18-year old step-daughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), re-train Danny to be a human being. They teach him about esoteric things like art and music, and mundane things like shopping and cooking. In the process, Danny and Victoria develop the beginnings of an understated romance. Although no great beauty, she is exuberant, and he finds that quality intoxicating. But Danny's past is lurking in the streets of Glasgow, ready to reclaim him when the opportunity arises.
Dramatically, Li's performance has fewer notes than the simple piano compositions he plays, but he delivers what's expected from him in a series of bone-crunching, gravity-defying fights that appear to have been done without wires or other special effects. These are harsh stunts, not of semi-comedic school favored by Jackie Chan, and will appeal to those who like their action served straight. The choreographer is Yuen Woo Ping, who seems to have been involved in every martial arts film made in the last decade. (Actually, his credits stretch back to the 1970s.)
Credibility comes via Bob Hoskins, who spits venom and chews the scenery with gusto, and a serene Morgan Freeman. These two are good enough that there are times when their performances bridge the credibility gap created by the script. Add in Li's agile battle skills, and moments are created when suspension of disbelief is an attainable concept. Unfortunately, Unleashed's unevenness becomes its undoing. The film contains enough quiet, reflective moments for us to become aware how preposterous the central conceit is, and that keeps us at arm's length. For a movie that strives to be in-your-face, that's too far away.