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
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.
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.