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Calling Jet Li's new movie Unleashed almost does it a disservice. Originally released in Europe as Danny the Dog, the new title makes it sound like a run of the mill action film, even though Jet Li always delivers bone-crunching action that gets the heart racing.

In no way, however, is Unleashed ordinary. Li, producer/writer Luc Besson and director Louis Leterrier reach for something more, creating an action film that has real heart and soul. Occasionally, all three of them falter, but the effort transcends the shortcomings.

The title does still fit, for when gangster loanshark Bart (Bob Hoskins) removes Danny's (Li) dog collar, it is only to beat deadbeat borrowers to death. Raised from childhood to be nothing but a killing machine, Danny spends his own down time in a childlike fugue state. Locked in a cage with some exercise equipment, he doesn't seem to have enough sense to bandage his own wounds. The only clues to his past rest in a tattered teddy bear and a children's alphabet book.

P is for Piano.

While waiting for a signal from Bart to kill some antique dealers, Danny meets blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman). Li's slow awakening to something of beauty in his life forms the crux of this film, often lifting it to a surprisingly sublime level.

Worry not; it also doesn't remove the threat of violence. Once Danny finds his way to a new family, Leterrier flashes to his other life - specifically, the ending of others' lives. The gimmick could have been cheap; instead, it builds a feeling of dread that darkens every scene of calm in Danny's life.

Somewhere out there in Glasgow, forces have to be mustering to pull Danny back down. Besson throws in a subplot involving mortal combat for entertainment, which seems a bit gratuitous at first. It soon ties together, forcing Danny to fight for his life while refusing to be what he once was.

At times, the script plays things a little too on the nose, particularly in Freeman's role. Assuming his warmest father figure voice, the actor delivers a lot of dialogue that exists solely to explain to us the themes of the movie. If he was explaining it to Danny, it might make sense, but he rarely does. Even Hoskins has a few pieces of exposition that bog things down, but at least he does it with a snarl.

Those two actors make a good contrast as Li's father figures, as unlikely as that sounds. Both at the top of their games, they work hard in roles either one could have sleep-walked through.

In a nice and uncommented on touch, Australian Kerry Condon plays Sam's stepdaughter (as an American), coltish and unsure about the sudden appearance of a new and much older "brother." At first Besson dabbles with their burgeoning sexuality, but wisely drops it; Victoria may be eighteen, but she's still a schoolgirl.

Which brings us to Li, an action star yearning to prove himself as an actor. He has always had an innocent quality that few movies have tapped, but this one brings to the fore. We can see Danny's inner struggle, and have to because his vocabulary is limited. Li captures the yearning for something that Danny can barely comprehend. Though again the script tends to underscore the obvious a little too much, Li makes it real and touching. We care for this killer.

It came as a surprise, that this movie would be the best one I saw this week. But there it is. Unleashed ended up being an action movie with the soul of a well-done small drama. Hopefully, that will only awaken its intended audience to a hunger for more.



Derek McCaw

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