UNLEASHED (Louis Leterrier, 2005)
As Glaswegian thug Bart, Bob Hoskins raises an abandoned boy to become his attack dog in UNLEASHED. The boy, Danny, grows up to become an ultimate killing machine in the form of Jet Li. Bart controls Danny by keeping a collar on him. When a client displeases him, he removes the collar and sics Danny on him. One day Danny escapes and is taken in by Morgan Freeman as the blind piano tuner Sam. He and his daughter Victoria show Danny kindness and a more peaceful life. When Bart finds Danny, he expects him to resume fighting and killing.
UNLEASHED isn’t intended as a commentary on how Jet Li has been utilized in Hollywood, but it serves that purpose nonetheless. Li’s transition to American films has brought roles with little dialogue or characterization and lots of kicking and punching. In all fairness, some of that can be attributed to his English fluency and the action genre’s limitations, but Li’s U.S. films have often treated him as just the latest imported martial arts curiosity. Ironically, in playing the equivalent of a dog in UNLEASHED, Li gets his most human character and an acting showcase. Li makes us feel sorry for Danny like we do for other movie beasts, from Frankenstein’s monster to the troublemaking alien in LILO & STITCH. There’s a lot of pathos in seeing Danny kept in a cage in the floor with a teddy bear, a punching bag, and an alphabet book to keep him occupied.
Of course, the reason anyone will go to see UNLEASHED is the action. Director Louis Leterrier and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping don’t disappoint. The well-choreographed action has a video game’s fluidity and brute force. UNLEASHED ingeniously uses props and enclosed spaces to heighten the excitement. The best fight occurs between Li and a white-robed warrior in a bathroom that is three feet wide at best. As good as the action is, the human element gives the film power. Freeman, as the gentle father figure, and Hoskins, as the abuser, do superior work as the opposing influences in Danny’s life. UNLEASHED satisfies on a primal level for physical combat and emotional nurturing, making it an unusually well-balanced action movie.
(Review first aired on the May 24, 2005 NOW PLAYING)