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Unleashed

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/21/05 22:53:36

"Long on sentimentality, short on action, Li's fans will be disappointed."
3 stars (Just Average)

"Unleashed" (aka "Danny the Dog"), an eccentric, bizarre, ultimately unsatisfying mix of maudlin redemption drama, gritty urban crime actioner, and elaborate martial arts fight sequences, reunites martial arts/action star Jet Li ("Hero," "Fist of Legend," "Once Upon a Time in China") and writer/producer/director Luc Besson, ("The Fifth Element," "The Professional"). Li and Besson first collaborated on "Kiss the Dragon," a mediocre, unoriginal crime/action film with Li's character, falsely accused of murder, on the loose in Paris, fighting the corrupt police to clear his name. "Unleashed" continues a sad trend in Jet Li's English-language film career: weak, underwritten scripts, visceral, kinetic, action scenes, but little else to recommend them.

Content with just writing and producing Unleashed, Besson passed on directing. Instead, Besson gave directing chores to a relatively inexperienced Louis Leterrier (the director on another Besson project The Transporter). Leterrier will follow Unleashed with the sequel to The Transporter, cleverly titled The Transporter 2. While Leterrier nominally handled directing the dramatic scenes, the action scenes were choreographed by martial arts legend, Yuen Wo Ping (best known in the United States for acting as the fight choreographer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix trilogy). The action scenes in Unleashed will likely disappoint Li’s martial arts fans (or fans of martial arts/action films). The actions scenes are fast, loose, and ultra-violent, but far too brief (we have to wait until the middle of the third act before encountering an elaborate fight scene).

Danny (Jet Li) is an enforcer who helps to collect outstanding debts for ‘Uncle’ Bart (Bob Hoskins, credibly thuggish), a petty, F-bomb throwing, criminal who operates out of a dilapidated, dank warehouse space in Glasgow. Bart and his gang make their living from terrorizing the local community, demanding money in exchange for “protection.” Bart, it seems, has raised Danny himself, but not as his son (or for any charitable reason), but as an animal who’ll heed Bart’s violent desires without reservation or doubt. To that end, Danny leads a misshapen, shrunken life, forced to live in a cage, with scraps for food, and a children’s book (and teddy bear) to keep him company. When needed for action, Bart removes Danny’s dog collar. Danny, in Pavlovian mode, reacts violently, thrashing anyone who opposes Bart’s protection policies.

After Bart runs afoul of one intended victim too many (the intended victim reacts by sending his own thugs to eliminate Bart), Danny escapes, dazed. He finds himself in an antique shop, where he earlier encountered a blind piano tuner, Sam (Morgan Freeman, persuasive in a familiar role). Sam takes Danny home with him, nursing Danny back to physical help. Danny, traumatized by years of physical and emotional abuse at Bart’s hands, reacts tentatively, fearfully at first. Sam lives with his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), a promising piano student. Sam and Victoria are both Americans, in Glasgow while Victoria attends a local music school. As Danny is gradually introduced into the wonders of domesticity (e.g., he learns how to cook), he sheds his fears and anxieties, joining Sam and Victoria in a makeshift, semi-functional family.

This long (audiences may find their patience growing thin here) domestic interlude will, of course, be interrupted, violently, by the return of Bart and his thugs. Bart wants Danny back, returned to his role as enforcer. In the action centerpiece, of the film Danny, forced to fight in an illegal underground club, refuses to fight. Attacked, he defends himself. The Mephisto-like master of ceremonies reacts angrily, sending first two additional fighters into the ring against Danny, then arming them with sharp-edged (and blunt-edged) weapons. Leterrier shoots the scene with fast/slow motion and quick cuts, but sensibly shoots in wide-angle, allowing the audience to appreciate Li’s skills as a martial artist and Ping’s as a fight choreographer.

Danny, of course, must choose between two, mutually exclusive ‘families,’ Bart or Sam’s, between “strict father morality,” taken to its logical, violent extreme and “nurturing parent morality,” which promises redemption, affection, and acceptance. Put that way, Danny’s choice will come as no surprise to the audience. What will come as a surprise, at least for Jet Li fans, is Besson’s choice to spend almost half the running time on Danny’s reintegration into civil society (which often veers into mawkish sentimentality). A tighter script would have eliminated or trimmed some of the domestic scenes, or simply added parallel scenes tracking Bart's efforts to find Danny and thus increasing the tension inherent in Danny's predicament.

Worse, Leterrier and his cinematographer's (Pierre Morel) decision to use a neutral, desaturated color palette (an idea whose time has come and passed) and photograph the indoor scenes with minimal lighting (and maximum shadows), apparently with Besson's approval or encouragement, serves to undermine Yuen Wo Ping’s action choreography. Note to Leterrier (and presumably, to Besson), underlighting action scenes make them difficult, if not impossible, for an audience to follow. Underlighting actions scenes might make sense in hiding a specific performer’s limitations, but not when you have a performer of Li’s obvious capabilities and experience.

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