France/USA/UK/Hong Kong, 2005. Rated R. 102 minutes.

Cast: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon, Vincent Regan, Dylan Brown, Tamer Hassan, Michael Jenn, Phyllida Law, Carole Ann Wilson, Michael Ian Lambert
Writer: Luc Besson
Original Music: Massive Attack, The RZA (end credits)
Cinematography: Pierre Morel
Producers: Luc Besson, Jet Li, Steven Chasman
Director: Louis Leterrier


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

Unleashed isn't directed by writer Luc Besson, but it may as well be. It is in every way a Besson movie. He favors implausible, action-oriented films about naïve people with special, often dangerous abilities who struggle to exist in normal society, like La Femme Nikita. Sometimes Besson succeeds in finding unexpectedly touching human drama at the center of his ridiculous premise, particularly in Leon (aka The Professional). Sometimes, as in The Fifth Element and The Messenger, he fails.

When it comes to human drama, Unleashed is something of a mixed bag. The story of a lethal killing machine who learns to be a human being, the story is almost as preposterous as The Fifth Element. Danny (Jet Li) has been raised as an attack dog by Bart (Bob Hoskins), a Glasgow gangster with a heart of lead. That's right, an attack dog. Leave Danny's metal collar on, and he's as docile as a sheep. Take it off, and shit-kicking, skull-crushing mayhem ensues. The rest of the time Danny lives in cage with an old alphabet book and a teddy bear, suggesting he was separated from his family very young. “Get them young and the possibilities are endless,” Bart explains. As Bart, Hoskins has a gleeful time (despite what must have been a rough shoot) demonstrating that Bart isn't any better than an animal himself.

On one of Bart's friendly visits to a business associate who has displeased him, a piano attracts Danny's attention. There a blind but wise piano tuner with a heart of gold, Sam (Morgan Freeman), attempts to strike up a conversation. Later, when Bart becomes the victim of a nasty hit, Danny goes back. Sam finds him there, hurt and bleeding, and takes him in. No questions asked.

Jet Li
Jet Li is in the midst of administering a beating in Unleashed.

This is the heartwarming drama part. Sam and his ward, 18-year-old Victoria (Kerry Condon)—a couple of Americans living in Scotland primarily (as near as I can figure) to render the film less alien to U.S. audiences—introduce Danny to human kindness, friendship, and ice cream. Yet Sam, who persists in calling Danny “boy” even though Jet Li was born in 1963, avoids prying into Danny's history. That's because Sam is Morgan Freeman. Morgan Freeman can always peer into people's souls without needing to ask too many questions. In Unleashed he senses that Danny is easily scared off, but neither he or Victoria has any idea how dangerous Danny really is.

These domestic scenes, which in a normal action picture would just be the interludes between shit kicking, become the focus of the entire middle of the film, as similar scenes do in the unedited version of Leon. The best scene of this middle part is when Danny gets caught in a nasty grocery-store robbery and simply ignores it, going about his business. When Sam marvels that Danny wasn't afraid, Danny's response is simple. “They weren't fighting me.” But unlike Leon, Unleashed gets bogged down. Sam and Victoria are too generically good to be true. If the film is going to spend this much time with them, Besson needed to give them distinct, unusual personalities.

Fortunately, the shit-kicking more than provides a reason to watch. C'mon, you don't seriously believe Bart is dead, do you? This is a Jet Li movie, you know. His efforts to emote in the middle stretch of the film are better than you might expect, but emoting is not what Jet Li is here to do. Much as Bart explains to Danny that his purpose is to hurt people, Jet Li's purpose is to…well, portray people who hurt people, and with unparalleled flair. Be warned, though: the violence in Unleashed is brutal—these aren't balletic sequences in invisible harnesses like in Hero or The Matrix. Blood spurts. Bones snap. Audience applauds.

Unleashed is shot in that grungy, low-budget style that's become common in UK-based non-period films, like 28 Days Later, and Snatch. (Incidentally, isn't the UK gray enough without going to the trouble of sucking the color out of the film? Or is this digital video?) A nice touch is the way Danny's pupils dilate, in an extreme closeup, when Bart unbuckles the collar. The music—again, a UK flavor—electronica courtesy of Massive Attack and, over the end credits, the RZA.

Besson has become a prolific writer who hands off his more mediocre screenplays to others for implementation—Wasabi and The Transporter being two recents examples. Besson's failure to direct Unleashed might be an implicit acknowledgement of the script's weaknesses. Too bad—Jet Li's martial artistry makes up for a lot of faults, and Besson might not have indulged in ridiculous thunderclaps at the end to punctuate events. As the films he does direct have become larger and larger disasters (see The Fifth Element and The Messenger), perhaps both Besson and the film would have benefited from Besson going back to what he does best.

Review © June 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Rogue Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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