Letting the dog out
Jet Li is one tightly coiled pit bull in this meditative martial-arts flick
If one goes into Unleashed expecting a balls-to-the-wall bone-crunching martial-arts smackdown, he’s gonna come away only half-satisfied. This entry is more a contemplation of violence, a humane drama with martial-arts elements.
Taking more than a few pages from Oliver Twist, Jet Li weighs in as Danny, snatched up as a toddler by British thug Bart (a scenery-chewing Bob Hoskins), who shields the boy from sensory input as he grows into adulthood, raising him as a human pit bull. Kept in a cage and shackled with a dog collar, Danny is unleashed on occasion by Bart to lay down some serious mayhem upon recalcitrant debtors.
When separated by circumstance from his master, Danny is taken in by a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman playing Morgan Freeman) and his young daughter, where he is essentially retrained to be a human. Of course, Bart isn’t really all that happy to have his meal ticket domesticated and sends in his goons, giving Jet Li occasion to strut his stuff.
Taking into account the film’s international pedigree (it was written and produced by Luc Besson, filmed in Britain using American money and with a distinctively Gallic eye, and choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping), the end result is a very atypical action movie, a simple story that manages to balance sentimentality with cynicism. Adrenaline junkies may be put off by the long lulls between the bursts of violence, but when unleashed Li kicks down with some very serious moves.
In the care of Hollywood trainers Li has been wasted in misfires such as Cradle 2 the Grave and The One. In Besson’s and director Louis Leterrier’s hands, however, Li is allowed to perform as more than a mere dervish cipher; here he is groomed into becoming an actual actor, delivering more than adequately.
Those accustomed to the traditional posturings of the genre may find the application here to be overly sentimental, but those willing to accept the premise (and Besson’s admittedly clunky dialogue) will find a more meditative approach to the action flick.