In my opinion, Jet Li has yet to make a truly great film for the western market. The projects he chooses usually fail to make full use of his acting abilities; concentrating merely on his skills as a martial artist. Fair enough, but the best action films possess more than tightly-choreographed fight scenes and impressive pyrotechnics - they have characters that we genuinely care about. His American films have been vapid enterprises, that barely scratched the surface of his “hidden” talents. It’s hardly surprising that it would take the eccentric French filmmaker Luc Besson to allow him to shine in a western production. Their 2001 collaboration Kiss of the Dragon featured plenty of chop-socky thrills, but it also gave Li the opportunity to show some of his range; limited as it might seem. Clearly this partnership works, since the Besson-scripted Unleashed is one of the star’s best films to date.
The plot of Unleashed (a terrible title - I prefer the original moniker of Danny the Dog), is a true oddity in this genre. In fact, it’s like two stories fused together; one is a conventional action picture, the other a heartfelt character study. It’s amazing that both strands come together so well. Li plays Danny, a gifted and vicious fighter, who is “owned” by gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins). Danny is forced to wear a dog collar, which keeps him in check - if Bart takes it off, he becomes feral and relentless; taking out his enemies with brutal efficiency. Poor Danny is treated like an animal by the crook, locking him up in a cage, and feeding him scraps. But when an associate of Bart’s fights back, Danny finds himself free.
He is befriended by a blind piano tuner, Sam (Morgan Freeman), and his 18-year old step-daughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). They take him in; allowing him to taste the simple pleasures of life that he was denied before. Naturally, his new-found tranquillity is cut short, when Bart returns. He wants Danny back, and will do anything to reclaim his “property”…
Directed with a fierce exuberance by Louis Letterrier (Transporter 2), Unleashed is an example of the genre at its most satisfying. It takes a truly ridiculous scenario, and gives it an authentic atmosphere; filmed with a murky colour palette, and edited on speed. It presents Glasgow in a rather grim light, but it’s good to see such a tale taking place there - the filmmakers could have easily transported the action to America. But they didn’t, and the location is one of the many elements that makes the picture different to most of Hollywood’s output. Unleashed is silly claptrap, but claptrap put together with a great deal of conviction. Both the narrative and attention to character allows the film to rise above our simple expectations. There’s something to it.
Besson’s screenplays have always varied in quality (especially for his non-directorial projects), but he seems to strike the right balance between sentimental drama and action cliché with Unleashed. If you look at the plot carefully, you’ll notice a clever re-working of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Danny is clearly the monster here - a man capable of unspeakable acts in the name of his master; but he’s also compassionate and loyal. His desire to overcome his primal instincts is a time-honoured character trait, and Besson’s inclusion of a blind man showing him the good of humanity is swiped completely from Shelley’s classic. But filmmakers love to show the duality of a character, and through Li’s sympathetic performance, we’re always on Danny’s side. While the dynamic between Danny and his “family” takes centre-stage for much of the picture, Leterrier doesn’t miss the chance to provide some kinetic action.
The opening sequence is a perfect example of Unleashed’s violent nature, as Danny takes on a whole room of gangsters. Li moves at a speed no human should be able to; contorting his body into any position he wishes. But this isn’t the graceful Li we saw in films like Hero. Danny has been raised like an animal, and his style of fighting follows accordingly. It’s down-and-dirty, haphazard and vicious. He’s a swirling dervish of energy. Letterier handles the fight scenes with aplomb, helped no end by the prolific action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping. So popular is Wo-Ping, that his name gets top billing on the end credits. His Midas touch is certainly evident here, giving the carnage some legitimacy. The best action scene is probably the moment Danny grudgingly takes on three armed warriors in a fight club - it’s particularly nasty, as the combatants use anything from axes to sledgehammers. Naturally, such a scene takes a suspension of disbelief (isn’t it funny how the lead character in these films always ends up in a fight championship?), but by this point, we care about Danny; we’d follow him anywhere. While the violence should please aficionados of the genre, Leterrier’s direction might infuriate some - it’s over-stylised to the extreme, with the odd instance of choppy editing. It’s a type of filmmaking that tends to leave me cold, but here, the visual design suits the story…
And for once, there’s plenty of story for the audience to get engrossed in. Danny’s blossoming friendship with Sam and Victoria is the emotional crux of the picture, and wouldn’t resonate half as well without it. So much time is spent on building their relationship, and the way they help Danny to change his lifestyle is certainly heart-warming - and I’m the kind of guy who hates anything remotely sappy. Of course, it helps when these characters are played by Freeman and Condon, who give their roles a great deal of humanity. Freeman in particular, brings his usual class to the proceedings; giving the far-fetched script an air of credibility. It was unusual to see him in what is definitely a “B-picture”, but his presence is always welcome. Condon fares well too, sparking pleasantly with Li in an understated romance. I thought that Hoskins on the other hand, overplayed his role when an iota of restraint was needed. The character of Bart is rather broad, and his villain is never feared - he’s treated as the comic relief all-to often.
But what about Li? As you’d expect from a role that was written especially for him, he brings a sense of depth to Danny. His treatment of the character’s animal instincts is brilliant - everything from his movement to his posture is off-kilter, and the expressions on his mug draw a great of sympathy. It’s a nuanced performance, and he certainly holds his own when Hoskins is chewing the scenery. One hopes that other filmmakers in America will give him meaty roles like this; Li’s a talented thesp, after all. While most of the elements work a treat, Unleashed is occasionally let down by Besson’s script. Both original and formulaic in equal measure, the screenplay often treads into familiar territory. I, for one, could have done without the sub-plot involving the death of Danny’s mother. The revenge motif is one of action cinemas biggest clichés, and it wasn’t really needed. But the sheer entertainment value of the film allows you to overlook such faults.
Concluding with a burst of pacifism, Unleashed is a surprisingly mature addition to the genre, with a great story and a well-developed protagonist. You’ll root for Danny, as you follow him on his moral journey; which was probably Leterrier’s aim. The action has a power that most films of this nature don’t possess, making it a must-see for fans of the talented Li, and those who like their violence delivered with intelligence too…
After a disappointing run at the UK box office, Unleashed arrives on DVD through Universal. It’s a bog-standard affair, with little in the way of intriguing bonus features. It retains the content found on the Region 3 “Collector’s Edition”, but is certainly worth a look for fans.
The Look and Sound
Unleashed is presented in a grimy anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, which seems to match the theatrical release for overall quality. It’s grimy due to Letterier’s shooting methods - dark and gritty, with a high degree of film grain. Despite the fact that this was clearly intentional, it makes the video very difficult to grade. The films saturated look is nicely-transferred, with the dull colours taking on a pleasing vibrancy. Blacks are solid, and there’s a high amount of detail to the image. Common problems like edge enhancement are thankfully kept to a minimum. In most respects, this is a good presentation.
The audio is robust too, although it should be noted that the DTS option found on the R3 release is absent. In its place, is a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which manages to make the audio experience a pleasant one. The surrounds are used well throughout, with the effects nicely spread across the sound field. Dialogue and music are transferred well, and with clarity. While the lack of DTS annoyed me immensely, the alternative track is no slouch.
Universal also provides a 2.0 track and English subtitles.
I liked these. They were animated well, with flashes of violence, and a dirty, washed-out look. In that respect, they suited the film; complimented by a simple layout and anamorphic encoding. Just the trick.
What a disappointing list of special features - once again, a great film is let down by its bonus material. Most people will speed through these supplements in no time at all, but they might interest fans of Li.
“Making of FX”
A small featurette, which concerns the closing CGI shot in the film - that of Danny’s mother playing the piano; the camera roving through the instrument. It’s not a terribly interesting piece, but the shot itself is impressive.
The usual collection of flubs and outtakes, that might be worth watching to see Morgan Freeman improvising. Otherwise, there’s not much here to raise a chuckle - it’s the usual “what’s my line?” shenanigans.
These are the full cuts of each of the major fight scenes in the film. But don’t get your hopes up - most of the footage made it into the final cut. Only a few shots are retained, that were either cut for pacing reasons or censored. It’s worth watching, especially since much of it appears in rough form.
“The Making of Unleashed”
An enjoyable, 30-minute piece, which is the most substantial extra on the disc. It includes interviews with everyone from Li to Letterier, to Freeman and Hoskins. There’s some great comments and factoids to be divulged here, with copious amounts of behind-the-scenes footage. Most of the key points are raised, such as the genesis of the script, and Li’s preparation for the role. Interesting.
We also get the original theatrical trailer, and the music video “Baby Boy” by the RZA.
The Bottom Line
I was impressed with Unleashed. Not only does it allow the brilliant Jet Li to show his acting chops, it also weaves an involving story; with lashings of memorable violence. It’s an underrated gem. Universal’s disc is somewhat disappointing, but due to the quality of the feature, I recommend you take “Danny the Dog” for a stroll…
Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:07:33