by David Cornelius
If you scrape the bottom of the barrel of action movie subgenres, you’ll find the Modern Gladiator movie. You know the kind: a group of stuntmen and action star hopefuls fight to the death as a secret society of billionaires - always sipping champagne so you know how rich they are - watch from above, placing bets. If you see one of these scenes pop up in a movie, that’s your cue to find another movie.Meanwhile, we have Jet Li, who has made many a great film in China and Hong Kong (“Fist of Legend,” “Once Upon a Time In China,” and, of course, “Hero”), has joined the ranks of overseas superstars whose efforts to hit it big with American-made films have fizzled. Consider Li’s work in Hollywood: “Lethal Weapon 4.” “Romeo Must Die.” “Kiss of the Dragon.” “The One.” “Cradle 2 the Grave.” All ranging from terrible to miserable.
"Finally, an English language film worthy of Jet Li's star power."
And now, we have “Unleashed.” That it is a Modern Gladiator movie starring Jet Li, working in the English language, does not bode well at all. This is a film that has all the components of a sure-fire failure. And yet, somehow, by some minor miracle, it works. More than that, in fact; it soars. “Unleashed” is a film that breaks every one of its negative expectations.
This is due, in part, to the appearance of Luc Besson’s name in the credits. Besson, the noted director (“La Femme Nikita,” “Leon,” “The Fifth Element”) who has lately turned to producing a wave of actioners, is a name that’s very hit-or-miss; when he misses, the result is a royal mess, but when he hits, hoo boy, does he hit. For “Unleashed,” Besson writes and produces, while the director of Besson’s action disappointment “The Transporter,” Louis Leterrier, returns to prove that his previous film’s failure may have been the exception, not the rule.
The two make quite a team here. Besson’s screenplay screams along with a fury, and Leterrier provides direction to match. The camera is constantly moving, sleek editing (courtesy Nicolas Trembasiewicz) helping maintain an energy that refuses to dissipate. Even when the story slows down for its calm middle act, there’s still a jittery feeling pushing everything forward. If any one word can describe a Besson film, it’s “kinetic,” and “Unleashed” stays with this formula.
As for that story, well, on its surface, it sounds like yet another reason why the film should bomb. And in other, less capable hands, it most surely would. Danny (Li) is a man who’s spent the last thirty-some years of his life living like a slave under the employ of loan shark “Uncle Bart” (Bob Hoskins). He’s been raised since childhood to be nothing more than a killing machine. Danny wears a steel collar, which leaves him silent and meek; Bart removes the collar and commands “kill ’em,” and it’s mere seconds before anyone reneging on a debt has met a swift, brutal end. “Danny the Dog,” they call him, and for understandable reasons. (“Get ’em young enough,” Bart gloats, “and the possibilities are endless.”)
When not breaking thumbs (among other parts), Danny’s being entered in the aforementioned fights to the death, one more way for Bart to rake in the cash from his three decade investment. But one day, Danny manages to escape, finding shelter in the home of a caring blind man (Morgan Freeman) and his stepdaughter (the geekishly adorable Kerry Condon). By providing him the love and attention he has been lacking all his life, Danny begins to break loose of his psychological damage; he remains a mental child, yes, but he finally begins to grow. That is, until Bart returns.
As my wife told me following the film, “it’s not very realistic, though.” Which is like saying the Pacific Ocean is a little damp. Yes, “Unleashed” requires an enormous leap of faith from the viewer - we’re asked to accept, among so many other pieces of silliness, that British loan sharks have the capabilities to raise a child as a dog in a kennel; that three decades of severe psychological conditioning can be undone in a matter of weeks, all thanks to love and ice cream; that billionaires will gleefully come to the worst parts of town, trudge down into some dank dungeon, and cheer as two men fight each other with weapons borrowed from a gladiator movie. Disbelief is not merely asked to be suspended; one must attach it to the space shuttle and launch it into orbit.
But if you’re able to put aside your eye rolls and head shakes, you will discover an action film with heart, a deliciously silly yet surprisingly touching work that alternates between the tender and the kick-ass. The film is outrageously exaggerated, bordering on camp, yet its emotional center is so solid that somehow, we’re able to care for the very people who are doing things that nobody would ever do in reality.
Main credit goes to the four leads, who pump enough power into their roles to make their characters endlessly watchable. Li, most notably, sells the idea of a man-child; his blank, pained stares trump any absurdity in the character’s background. Slowly, delicately, Li gets us to care for him. It’s Li’s transformation from mindless to wild-eyed hooks us, and, following a long diversion into a completely violence-free middle act, we’re so sold on the notion of this implausible situation as reality that by the time Bart reappears, it’s a shock to our senses. We come to love this confused, troubled person, and to see him sucked back into the world of movieland ultraviolence is a stunner.
Freeman and Condon also do their part, making us accept the idea that these people are so quirky in their unlimited kindness that they’ll happily take in a homicidal stranger. These two, along with Li, play their parts straight up, no winks. If they see their characters as being goofy, they’re not showing it. Their convictions help the viewer buy into the mess freely.
Then there’s Hoskins, who realizes how outlandish his role is, and revels in it. Here is scenery chewing of the highest order, manic, operatic, wonderful. If his character had a moustache, he’d spend the entire film twirling it. Unlike the other cast members, who push to bring realism to an unrealistic situation, Hoskins goes the other route, pushing Bart’s deviance to joyous extremes. To hear him become so ruthlessly vile, all while he’s getting all the best lines (done in the best cockney), it’s just such great fun.It’s a bit embarrassing to admit to liking “Unleashed” so much, considering just how flat-out hokey it all is. But this is expertly made hokum, an ridiculous tale told with such conviction and emotional investment that it becomes quite easy to forget the ridiculousness. What we have here is a first-rate cast, a director who’s showing to have some major chops, and a writer/producer eager to throw in as much as possible in the name of entertainment. It’s either a solid drama punctuated by eye-popping fight sequences, or it’s a solid action movie supported by tender sentiment. Either way, “Unleashed” is a damn sharp film; it just doesn’t look like it.
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originally posted: 05/31/05 16:04:04