In the malicious care of his "uncle" Bart (Bob Hoskins), orphan Danny (Jet Li) has been raised since he was a boy to become a lean killing machine, silenced only by a metal collar he wears around his neck. Once a simple loan shark enforcer, Danny is given a more formidable challenge when he becomes the darling of an underground fight network. When a twist of fate sets Danny free from Bart's sadistic control, he finds relief from his violent world in the presence of a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his daughter (Kerry Condon, "Intermission") who take the childlike Danny into their home and educate him in the ways of life and music. Danger comes when Bart wants his pet back, and threatens to destroy Danny's new peaceful life to reclaim him.
In English-speaking roles, action superstar Jet Li has been teetering between two extremes of quality. On one side of the globe, Li has found big paychecks and fancy production flourishes with American products like "The One," and his two Joel Silver collaborations, "Cradle 2 the Grave" and "Romeo Must Die." Trouble is, those pictures were trainwrecks, overindulging in the worst American action film tendencies. However, when Li spends his time with French writer/producer Luc Besson ("Leon," "La Femme Nikita"), the product is amazing, as seen in the dynamite 2001 free-for-all "Kiss of the Dragon." Wisely, Li reteams with Besson for "Unleashed" (IMDb listing, known internationally as "Danny the Dog"), and the result is another cinematic triumph for Besson, Li, and their distinctly European production team.
It doesn't take a sharp eye to realize that Li and Besson are after a different type of action film with "Unleashed." The picture is grounded in character, not set pieces or mystery, which allows a rare opportunity for the audience to become fully invested in the performers. The beauty of Besson's action productions is that they are intensely ridiculous escapades, freely accepting their cartoonish nature and outlandish fight choreography, yet they seldom seem to succumb to the American need to pummel everything in their path. "Unleashed" has incredible moments of operatic, absurdist violence, but the film is never buried by it, and it retains its core as a softer kaleidoscope of ass-kickery. When was the last time you saw a film that featured both the lilting power of classical music and a sledgehammer thrashing?
Choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, the master behind "The Matrix" trilogy, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and the "Kill Bill" films, "Unleashed" is a marvel of aggression. While still clinging gently to the exhausted field of wire-fu, the picture makes up for it through its sheer brutality. To maintain Danny's character arc, director Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter") isn't afraid to show his rough side, and Danny's back alley combat sequences are a vicious spectacle. This is Li's most alive work in years, as he demonstrates vividly just what type of brutal threat Danny is through fisticuffs, limb-snapping, and repetitive body blows. All this combines into Li's wonderful performance, which manages to be both endearing and urine-loosening frightful. Li has a tendency to take stoic, poker-faced roles, but as the oddly innocent Danny, Li finds an opportunity to show another side of his personality. Playing befuddled is an admittedly easy way into sympathy, yet Li's work isn't simple; he has to weigh childlike curiosity with very adult rage, and he accomplishes this mixture expertly, and in a way he's never shown onscreen before. Li's skills deserve a film that takes him more seriously, and "Unleashed" is finally a production that fits him.
Of course, Li isn't having as much fun as the rest of the cast, who are free to roam outrageously with their performances. Blustery and foaming, Bob Hoskins is the perfect foil for Li, playing a character who couldn't outfight Danny, but can easily talk him into any situation. He's terrific fun. On the other end of the spectrum is Danny's adoptive family, warmly played by Kerry Condon and Morgan Freeman, who is having a blast playing up his character's sunny disposition. If "Unleashed" wasn't already a unique enough Jet Li feature film, the inclusion of these fine actors leaves no doubt about what type of experience Besson and Li are going after. I'm pleased to report that they've succeeded once again.
Filmfodder Grade: B+