Starring: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon
Director: Louis Leterrier
The last good action film to strike its audience with just as much story as the number of punches was the 1994 Luc Besson underground hit, “The Professional,” so it’s no surprise that Besson had his hand in the creation of “Unleashed,” the latest and best English-speaking Jet Li film yet. Gone are the flashy action-sequences and rap stars that littered his earlier work, and in their place are gritty, down-and-dirty fights that showcase Li blocking punches with his head, all while the humble Chinese-born actor displays the true thespian side of the dangerous action star that we’ve all been waiting to see unleashed.
Li stars as Danny, a well-trained bodyguard whose life has been reduced to that of a dog’s by his “Uncle” Bart (Bob Hoskins), a ruthless crime boss in the grimy Glasgow underworld that literally unleashes Danny from his restraining collar on any associate stupid enough to refuse payment on their debts. When a car accident leaves Bart and his goons seriously injured one day, Danny crawls away and takes refuge with a blind piano tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman). Sam and his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condron) help to introduce Danny to a world of happiness and humanity that he never knew existed, but not before Bart can resurface and reclaim his beloved pet as his own. Drawn between a newly discovered world of pacifism and the violent underworld he’s ever really known, Danny must decide between a life of servitude and one of freedom.
”Unleashed” is unlike any action film you’ve ever seen, in part because the script is almost too smart for something that oozes so much gratuitous violence. This isn’t to say that the action sequences dominate the emotional themes threaded throughout the tale, but it’s certainly an unconventional fusion that only makes the experience more enjoyable, much like the numerous international influences that impact the final product. “Unleashed” feels like a British production, what with the film’s locale and Guy Ritchie-like villains, but it looks like a French art film with its use of jarring, moss-colored cinematography. Its Hong Kong-esque inspiration can’t be denied either, with the best martial arts cinematographer in the industry (Yuen Woo Ping) behind each and every punch. And finally, we have the fabulous U.S. marketing team to thank for changing the title from the brilliant and much-admired “Danny the Dog” to “Unleashed.”
That last example is but only another below-the-waist blow to the long-standing belief that U.S.-based studios don’t know how to produce solid films, but this summer season finally looks like it won’t disappoint, and “Unleashed” is the perfect example as the first good action film of the year. Featuring a wonderful cast powered by film veterans like Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins, and featuring one of the best villains since Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast,” “Unleashed” will impress anyone who loves a good trip to the movies.
A lot of unrated film versions have been rolled out on DVD recently, and for the most part, they're pretty decent discs. This is not one of them. Aside from the inclusion of an unrated cut (which doesn't look any different from the theatrical version), the "Unleashed" DVD features a short interview with director Louis Leterrier, a behind-the-scenes fight featurette, and more promotional drivel.