by Jay Seaver
"Come on," I told my brother. "I've got tickets for a preview of Unleashed. It's got Jet Li punching and kicking people, many of them in the head!" He wasn't sure; he was already spending one night away from his girlfriend that week. "AND it's got Bob Hoskins being crazy!"Now, there are some who say that you need more than a man beating up dozens of larger, better-armed fighters to make a good movie. These people are spoilsports, but to appease them, the movie is roughly half other stuff, so they can have reasons for their fighting. Bart (Hoskins) is a gangster who has a secret weapon: Danny (Li), whom he has brought up from childhood to be an attack dog - docile so long as he has his collar on, but a tornado of violent action as soon as it comes off. A witness to one of these beatdowns offers Bart a chance to make Danny an attraction at his underground fight club, but Bart will soon lose Danny during a car crash, with Danny taken in by Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner, and his foster daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). It is, of course, only a matter of time before Bart finds his now-domesticated dog and tries to put him back to use - which, of course, puts his new family in danger.
"Hey, a fight movie where the stuff between fights is kinda worth watching."
So, important things first - how's the action? Pretty good. Though Li has done a lot of wire-fu in his time, the action in Unleashed offers up more earthbound choreography, and brutal at that. Li drops one guy with a single blow to the throat, for instance, but most fights fortunately last longer. The most noteworthy comes as Bart sends a small army of men into Sam & Victoria's apartment building and Danny fends one off in a bathroom not really large enough for one to move past the other - enjoyably intense. It's also fun that most of the local Glaswegian muscle Danny gets to beat up are the sort of bulky, poor-acting Caucasians with more credits for stunts than acting that have long been a staple of Asian martial arts movies.
The stuff that comes between the fight scenes - the connective tissue, so to speak - is actually pretty good. The two opposing forces vying for Danny's soul are represented by Hoskins and Freeman, and huge amounts of credit have to be given to Hoskins - Freeman's Sam is so good and kind-hearted, with Bart being the vulgar, sociopathic opposite, that it's impressive how much charisma Hoskins invests him in. He's a thorough bastard, a crude monster, but we want him on screen, because despite his low-class Cockney accent and tendency toward bluntness, there's more going on in his brain than meets the eye. Making Danny a dog is creative, at the least, and he has a sort of twisted affection for his creation.
On the other side is Morgan Freeman, who makes a throughly goofy character work. He's blind and good-natured. He talks to Danny like he's addressing a child when they first meet, and makes a lot of his lines work because he's Morgan Freeman and skilled enough to make even platitudes sound good. He smiles genially through the entire movie, the greatest foster father an adult man who has been raised to be a dog can have. As smoothly charming as Freeman is, Kerry Condon is almost as lovable in an awkward way. She's smart and talented, but not the typical action-movie female at all. She's got braces, she's a little self-conscious, and she never gives the impression of being a makeover away from being a pin-up. She talks like a girl who has nothing wrong with her, but will never be one of the cool kids.
One thing the audience does have to kind of file away is any knowledge of many of the actors' actual ages. Kerry Condon is almost certainly old enough to be out of high school, and rather looks it, but is authentic enough that, okay, sure, we can mostly buy into it. Morgan Freeman is pushing seventy, which seems on the old side to be her guardian, but he doesn't look his age quite so much as he does in, say, Million Dollar Baby. Jet Li is about forty, but would seem to be playing a character of about twenty-five years. He, of course, is also in great shape, but when he and the (supposedly) teenaged girl are kind of crushing on each other, yeah, it's kind of weird, no matter how cute they sometimes are together.
It's kind of a funny thing for an English-language movie with Chinese, American, and British stars to be written and directed by French guys. This isn't meant as a jab at director Louis Leterrier and writer Luc Besson, but honest praise - Bart, Sam, and Victoria all sound right (Danny barely speaks), which is kind of impressive considering it's not Leterrier's or Besson's native language. Having Yeun Wo-ping on hand to do the action choreography helps immensely, of course; there aren't many better. The movie has the same slick, but tongue-in-cheek, style as their earlier collaboration, The Transporter, though it's somewhat darker, with more hand-to-hand action as opposed to vehicular mayhem.Unleashed is absurd, but it's got talent enough to be taken seriously. Jet Li displays some actual acting chops here, and everyone acquits themselves well enough to claim that the movie is about the story rather than the smacking down with a straight face. It's still a martial arts action movie, of course, even if the space between the fights is more entertaining than one usually expects.
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originally posted: 06/05/05 13:43:56