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Overall Rating
3.64

Awesome: 19.42%
Worth A Look53.4%
Average: 9.71%
Pretty Bad: 6.8%
Total Crap: 10.68%

9 reviews, 49 user ratings



Unleashed
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Another killer bit of art-fu from Luc Besson"
4 stars

Most action films produced today are aimed squarely at 14-year-old boys of all ages–Luc Besson, on the other hand, makes the kind of films that a 14-year-old boy might come up with if he suddenly had access to millions of dollars to bring his fever dreams to life. The difference between the two is that Besson’s visions have a strange kind of purity to them. Sure, he has come up with some of the most crackpot films of all time–including such titles as “The Fifth Element,” “La Femme Nikita” and “Leon”–and his fusion of goofball plots, extravagant action sequences, improbable artistic flourishes (especially a penchant for classical music), silent heroes, hammy villains and a never-ending series of skinny, youngish babes hasn’t changed much over the years, but he deploys them with a guileless innocence that is refreshing when compared to the more cynically conceived efforts that clog the multiplexes. Granted, his work isn’t to everyone’s taste but I would take any one of his arthouse-grindhouse combo platters over the entire filmographies of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay combined any day of the week.

Besson also has the energy of a 14-year-old as well–while he hasn’t officially directed a film since his glorious 1999 folly “The Messenger,” he has served as a producer on no less than 45 different movies and had a hand in writing 15 of them. While I haven’t seen all of these films (hell, I’m not even sure he has had the time to see them himself), the ones that I have managed to catch (of which “Kiss of the Dragon,” “Wasabi” and “The Transporter” are probably the best-known in America) follow his template to such a degree that it is clear that he is the guiding force behind the films, regardless of who is actually sitting in the director’s chair. Unlike other directors who willing accept a chunk of money to slap their name on any old film regardless of quality (I’m talking to you, Wes Craven and Sam Raimi), Besson seems incapable of simply taking the money and running–for good or ill, depending on your point-of-view, these efforts are just as personal as the ones that he directs himself.

“Unleashed” is the latest effort from his assembly line and though the direction is credited to Louis Leterrier (who served as Besson’s assistant for years and previously directed “The Transporter”), Besson’s contributions as writer-producer are so obvious that it is virtually indistinguishable from his own directorial efforts. Like his other films, the film is a weirdo blend of bone-crushing action and gorgeous visuals in the service of a plot so preposterous that you feel like a lunatic when trying to recount it to others. And like his other films, the end result is a occasionally glorious bit of goofiness that is about ten times better than the uninspired ads and title would lead you to believe.

Jet Li, who previously collaborated with Besson on “Kiss of the Dragon,” stars as Danny, a ferocious fighter who has been raised since childhood by the nefarious Scottish loan shark Bart (Bob Hoskins) to be the human equivalent of a pit bull. Bart’s manner of collecting money from deadbeats is very simple–if they don’t pay, he removes the collar that he has affixed to Danny’s neck and sics him on them until they pay up or turn into pulp. (Perhaps realizing that this is a premise that strains the bounds of credulity more than most, the film immediately kicks off with a brutal beat-down in order to distract anyone from asking pesky questions.) One would-be victim points out, “You’ve basically turned a man into a dog,” and he doesn’t know the half of it–Danny gets smacked around when he makes a mistake and is locked in a cage when he isn’t out with his master.

Things change one day when rival criminals attack and leave everyone for dead. Danny survives and wanders off, stumbling across a blind piano tuner played by Morgan Freeman (whose character is named Sam, perhaps because of the old rule that states that any black piano player in a movie has to be named Sam). Sam does what any blind man would do when confronted with a strange, barely conscious, near-feral Asian man who passes out at his feet from a tremendous loss of blood–he takes him home and allows him to live with himself and his nubile, just-turned-18 stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). Hell, he doesn’t even think it to be especially strange when his guest refuses to speak or come out from hiding under the bed for days on end. (Could this be Besson’s ultra-obscure homage to the immortal “Teenagers from Outer Space”?) Before long, Sam and Victoria introduce Danny to the finer things in life–such as ice cream, Mozart and kissing–and he eventually loses both the collar and the desire to beat the stuffing out of people. At that exact moment, alas, Bart turns up again and plans to retrieve his prize pup by any means necessary and Danny must regain his talents to save both the day and his new family.

In films such as “La Femme Nikita,” “Leon” and “The Messenger,” Besson has told stories in which innocent orphans are trained to become ruthless killers and the tensions that arose when the two sides would come into conflict. By transforming a killing machine into a human being, “Unleashed” is a reasonably clever inversion on that premise. The problem, however, is that it means that, despite the presence of Besson and Li and the promise of the commercials, there is less action on display than one might expect from such a combination and the long second act, in which Sam gives Danny sage lessons on how to “talk” to food, among other things, will try the patience of some viewers. However, when the action does dominate, those scenes are singularly impressive. While the fights seen here may not display the ingenuity or fluidity of such moments as the pool-room brawl in “Kiss of the Dragon” or the battle on the oil-slicked floor in “The Transporter,” the scenes here, choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, who performed similar chores on such notable films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Kung-Fu Hustle” and the various episodes of “The Matrix” and “Kill Bill,” are intense enough to satisfy most action buffs. One in particular, in which Li does battle with a competitor while stuck in a tiny bathroom, is one of the more ferocious hand-to-hand battles that I have seen in a while.

Although one does not go to a film like “Unleashed” for the acting, the performances on display are actually reasonably interesting. In his previous American films, filmmakers have tried to shoehorn Jet Li, who rocketed to fame in Hong Kong because of the sheer brutality of his moves (while the typical Jackie Chan character would try to avoid hurting people as much as possible, Li’s persona was of someone who would pulverize you in an instant and enjoy it thoroughly), into a more audience-friendly persona with limited results. Here, playing a brute who is gradually learning to be a more pleasant person, his slightly uncomfortable manner in some of the more character-driven moments is actually a positive aspect instead of a detriment. Hoskins, in the grand tradition of Gary Oldman in “Leon,” is in full scenery-chewing mode and clearly having a blast doing so. Relative newcomer Condon is sweet and charming as the adorably gawky stepdaughter, even though she doesn’t really have much to do. As for Freeman, he has played the role of the sage old black man offering advice and life lessons so often that it could almost be called the Morgan Freeman part. He’s okay, I suppose, but I somehow suspect that if he had his druthers, he might have preferred that his first post-Oscar performance was something a little more significant than the second banana in a kung-fu flick.

“Unleashed” is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination–it lacks the reckless imagination that has fueled Luc Besson’s best work over the years–and I suspect that it will get overlooked amidst all of the hoopla surrounding “Revenge of the Sith.” However, it is a beautiful bit of pop-art action that makes intriguing use of the formidable talents of Jet Li and it throws just enough curveballs to keep viewers on their toes. After being pummeled by the hard-sell likes of “XXX-State of the Nation” and other exhausted compilations of action cliches, the cracked charms of “Unleashed” come as a blessed relief.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11680&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/13/05 14:20:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/02/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess Jet Li shows amazing talent as both a fighter and an actor 5 stars
11/01/08 ldavies One of my favorite Jet Li performances 4 stars
8/27/08 Shaun Wallner Awesome storyline! 5 stars
8/15/08 kariboo Jet Li did a wonderful job acting in this movie. He outshined even Morgan Freeman. 5 stars
6/20/08 PAUL SHORTT AN IRRITATING EXCUSE TO GLORIFY SENSELESS SLAUGHTER 1 stars
2/03/07 AJ Muller Good story, great acting, kickass fights. Jet's best USA flick and #2 after Fist of Legend. 5 stars
10/16/06 anitamich Loved it, loved the acting........... I thought the violence and brutality was too heavy 4 stars
9/08/06 drydock54321 you gotta see him fight 4 stars
8/28/06 Kim Anderson Very Good Movie Action 4 stars
4/21/06 Movie Loon I couldn't disagree more with Paul Bryant's Review. I thought unleashed was a good movie 4 stars
4/02/06 Peter De La Rosa Jet can act.Great Cast.Action.Location.Li's best yet. 5 stars
3/17/06 chris f fantastic movie one of the best action movies of all time 5 stars
1/01/06 metalhead I thought it was a great film, I don't know why everyone hates it... 5 stars
12/23/05 Abraham Lincoln Great stuff. I enjoyed the movie, I'm no movie critic, just enjoyed it. :) 5 stars
12/12/05 gray why did this do so poorly? 4 stars
12/05/05 od no more screenplays for Besson to write 1 stars
11/28/05 ELI When Jet Li is the best actor in a movie that's a bad sign. Didn't know Morgan could SUCK 1 stars
11/25/05 CONSTANTINE AWSOME... Totally Bad-ASS Kung-Fu Fightin' Jet Li Film EVER! 5 stars
10/22/05 othree Great cast, action, simple movie that works, score could have been better 4 stars
10/13/05 John It has some nice moments and a good cast but it turns into predicatble fluff 3 stars
10/11/05 CONSTANTINE AWESOME, totally, totally AWESOME... BEST JET LI MOVIE EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
9/04/05 Graham All the entertainment comes from how ridiculous the plot is and wondering how they dreamtit 1 stars
8/27/05 Rever_Bear-Trap BEST JET LI FILM TO DATE! 5 stars
8/11/05 ES A decent movie, you new going in it would be terrible of good, happy to say its a positive 4 stars
7/25/05 Eric Rollins Definitely delivers, no more implausable than the typical martial arts film. 3 stars
6/21/05 Brock Stewart good surprised. The best jet li film 4 stars
6/08/05 Agent Sands Typical Luc Besson fluff, with a wee bit more depth than usual, or ever. 4 stars
6/04/05 Hack-SAW ONE OF THE BEST ACTION FILMS OF 2005... A JET LI CLASSIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
6/03/05 Christy Schultz Gotta love Jet 4 stars
6/03/05 deadwiz One of Jet Li's best films. 4 stars
5/30/05 Joses Sweet ass-kickery. Doesn't need to be seen in theaters, though. 4 stars
5/26/05 ^ZuLu^ Jet Li's by no means a good actor. Others do good. Fighting is like in other movies. 3 stars
5/26/05 Cobretti Laughably bad sentimentality bookended by a ludicrous action story. Someone stop Besson. 2 stars
5/25/05 u4ea666 Awesome, love every jet li movie! 4 stars
5/23/05 Shao Fu Tzer People who didn't like this need mental help. 5 stars
5/19/05 jeff fun movie, good acting. 5 stars
5/18/05 jcjs fun, no brainer, excellent acting Bob, Morgan 4 stars
5/17/05 KingNeutron Liked it, but the ending was a bit strange. 3 stars
5/17/05 Captain Highcrime Yeah, pure popcorn storyline but Jet Li is absolutely adorable 4 stars
5/16/05 Bobbi good story, excellant acting, but paint by numbers plot, but somewhat enjoyable anyway 4 stars
5/15/05 average dude Chris Parry won't suspend his disbelief for action movies with Asian stars. 4 stars
5/15/05 Alberto Very kool, best Jet Li film ever! 5 stars
5/14/05 REDHT Jet Li kicks ass! 4 stars
5/14/05 Jet Li you sucks 5 stars
5/10/05 Josh You all mut be joking--or else you're industry shils. This sucked ass!! 1 stars
5/09/05 Andy Luca It is so cool, everyone should see it 5 stars
5/09/05 Julie Gastonar It is awesome, and show another aspect of martial art 5 stars
5/08/05 STAR LCGAP Unleashed is spectacular 5 stars
5/08/05 David Smith A little be cheesy, But it is a very good one. Li aimed for young audience to teach a lson 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  13-May-2005 (R)
  DVD: 11-Oct-2005

UK
  N/A

Australia
  18-Aug-2005




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