In many ways, Unleashed (changed in English-speaking territories from its original French title Danny the Dog, presumably so to avoid people thinking it was about a family pet) is a typical Luc Besson product. Since 1999, when he stepped out from behind the camera following the poorly-received The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, he has made a name for himself as a writer and producer of action movies that tend to combine Hollywood and European storytelling aesthetics, some with more success than others. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that Unleashed is by far the best of these projects, and also the most unusual, combining chopsocky thrills with genuine intelligence and character development. You see, despite being a Jet Li vehicle, and despite the prominently marketed choreography of Yuen Wo Ping (best known to Western audiences for his work on The Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), at its heart this is not really a martial arts flick or even an action movie.
The scenario is a ludicrous but potent affair. Danny (Jet Li) has been raised as an animal from a very young age by Glasgow gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins), who keeps him in a cage and feeds him on scraps. Danny is kept in check by a metal collar, and as long as he is wearing it, he is docile and subservient. When it is removed, however, Danny turns into a ferocious killing machine, breaking the limbs of Bart's enemies with abandon. So far, so good, until one of Bart's adversaries decides to fight back, ambushing his car and pumping it with machine gun fire. In the ensuing chaos Danny, believing Bart to be dead, escapes, and is found bleeding and on the verge of collapse by Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano-tuner. Kindly fellow that he is, Sam takes Danny into his home and nurses him back to health, with the assistance of his step-daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). With their help, Danny gradually adjusts to his new life and begins to lose his killer instinct, leaving his past as Bart's slave behind. Bart, however, is in fact very much alive and will stop at nothing to reclaim him.
Danny the Dog is different from your usual action fare in that, instead of being centred around a series of violent set-pieces, it is constructed around a solid central idea and an intriguing character. It has its share of fight sequences, undoubtedly, but they always play second fiddle to the plot. This is not exactly unusual in a Besson script; indeed, he made a name for himself in the first half of the 90s with films like Nikita and Léon, two of the most substantial action movies produced. From the latter, especially, Unleashed borrows a great deal, once again telling the story of an unconventional family in a world of pain and hardship. Like Léon, Danny is essentially a monster: his role in life is to kill, and the fact that the blood of many is on his hands is difficult to ignore. What separates the two is free will. With Léon, his job as a "cleaner" was clearly his chosen profession; Danny, however, has been forced into this life by Bart. As the film progresses, it becomes an intriguing study on the nature of a monster, asking us who is the real animal.
The answer to that question is never in any real doubt, and it is in this respect that it all starts to fall apart if you attempt to over-analyse it. Besson's writing is shamelessly manipulative, constructing a world of black and white where the good guys are faultless and the bad guys are without a shred of human decency. Barring Danny, all the characters are essentially ciphers, including Sam and Victoria, whose one-dimensional personalities only work because of the skill of their respective performers (more on this later). The audience is offered no real opportunity to draw their own conclusions, and this will undoubtedly infuriate some viewers.
Another failing in the script is in the use of Danny's collar. It is undoubtedly a strong image, and the entire movie (including its international marketing campaign) rests on it, but it is applied inconsistently. A lot is made, especially in the first act, of the fact that Danny transforms from harmless passivity into a killing machine when it is removed, but then when Victoria finally takes it off him, nothing happens. The point, I suppose, is that Danny has been "domesticated" and his killer instinct has left him, but this matter is not adequately dealt with and feels like a loose end. The reason for this, I suspect, is that the collar actually functions as a means for Besson to sidestep any of the issues he raises. Danny, after all, is essentially a mass murderer, and in that regard the lack of consequence for his actions is bizarre, as is the fact that Sam and Victoria seem all to quick to accept him even when they learn the true nature of his past. By employing the collar as the central symbol, Besson is able to declare Danny's actions when unleashed to be those of a different person entirely. But the thing is, it becomes blatantly obvious that this isn't true: his thoughts are clearly the same whether he is collared or not. (Still, however, there are some nice little touches in the use of this imagery. For example, it took until my third viewing of the film to notice that, during the climax, when Bart finally decides to weigh into the fight himself, he removes his own "collar" - the neck brace he has worn since he was injured in the shoot-out.)
Ultimately, though, none of this harms the finished piece unduly, and it is a testament to Besson's writing that the central concept is able to withstand these deficiencies in the script. The cornerstone of the movie is the character of Danny and his relationship with his adoptive family. In the black and white world in which the film takes place, Danny is the only character to have anything approaching shades of grey, and the scenes in which he interacts with Sam and Victoria are a real delight to watch. Li's performance is nuanced and subtle, and it is entirely possible to believe that he has been raised as a dog, thanks to various little details like his posture and timid reactions. As in Million Dollar Baby, the role Freeman plays should really be listed in the end credits as "Plot Device", but he plays the part with such quiet conviction that you can forget that his only function is as a tool for the story. Hoskins, meanwhile, does what he does best and chews the scenery with glee. Bart is a comic book villain, and it would be impossible to pull off playing him with even an ounce of subtlety, but Hoskins manages to create a believable character almost entirely out of frothy-mouthed screaming, bulging eyes and liberal usage of "fuck". That said, the most diverting performance comes from Kerry Condon, largely because she is so atypical. Had this been a Hollywood movie, I am in no doubt that the part of Victoria would have been written as a love interest for Danny and that she would have been played by Jessica Simpson or a similar "eye candy" star. Victoria, however, is, as one review so eloquently put it, "a brace-faced spazzy geek", and Condon's performance is so refreshingly different that she makes her paper-thin character not only believable but hopelessly endearing. She and Li also have a real rapport together and manage to create a relationship in which she serves as something of a surrogate older sister, making you forget that he is actually 20 years older than her.
It is essentially the quality of the interaction between the four stars that makes the film so successful, and indeed explains why some one like me, who has absolutely no interest in martial arts films, could end up being so overwhelmingly positive about a Jet Li vehicle choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping. There are essentially four fight scenes in the movie, only two of which go on for an extended period of time, and only one of which seems remotely gratuitous. The action portrayed here is a world away from that of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, dropping the gliding elegance of that film in favour of the gritty, chaotic and violent ruthlessness that characterises Danny's anarchic style of combat. All of this is competently lensed by Louis Leterrier, Besson's latest protégé who also helmed 2002's The Transporter and its 2005 sequel. The dual nature of Danny's character extends to the visual style, contrasting the grainy, monochromatic world inhabited by Bart and his fellow gangsters, replete with choppy editing, with the warm reds and browns of Sam and Victoria's home, with its smooth, languid pacing. The decision to shoot the film in Glasgow, of all places, was an interesting one, and I found it quite fun spotting numerous locations that I have personally been to. That said, the fact that all the inhabitants speak with cockney accents that would be more at home in a Guy Ritchie movie struck me as more than a little bizarre. I can only imagine that Besson and co decided that these would be more palatable to the average viewer than a native Glaswegian twang.
Ultimately, Unleashed has its shortcomings, most of them stemming from the script, which seems to alternate between complex and overly simplistic. That said, for some reason this unusual combination of gaudy martial arts and heartfelt drama just seems to work. Much of this comes down to the excellent performances of Li, Freeman, Hoskins and Condon, but a lot too stems from the filmmakers' conviction, playing a fairly ludicrous story with blunt sincerity. The result is Luc Besson's best project in years and Jet Li's finest performance to date.
Presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, Unleashed gets a good but not particularly impressive presentation. The film has a deliberately stylised appearance, with a heavily manipulated colour palette, and all of this is conveyed well, with the almost monochromatic sequence's in Bart's world contrasting with the warmer hues of Sam and Victoria's home. Interestingly, a comparison between this and the French 2-disc Ultimate Edition DVD by EuropaCorp, reviewed here, reveals that each has a completely different colour grade, with the US version showing a greater level of discrepancy between the purposefully monochromatic scenes set in Bart's world and the more saturated scenes set in Sam and Victoria's home. I'm at a loss as to which version is more faithful to Leterrier's intentions, and even find myself unable to decide which I prefer overall (I think that the undersaturated scenes come across better on the French DVD, whereas I prefer the look of the warmer scenes on the US disc).
Detail, on the other hand, is less impressive, with the whole image taking on a rather soft appearance, and thick edge enhancement halos on display at all times. Especially in comparison with French Ultimate Edition, the US release looks positively disappointing, since, while the French release does suffer from edge enhancement of its own, it is on the whole far less invasive, and, beyond the ringing, it at least looks detailed and reasonably filmlike.
The two available audio tracks are a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a DTS 5.1 variant, both presented in the film's original English. Of the two, the DTS track is clearly the better, sounding considerably deeper and punchier than its Dolby variant. The DTS track compares very favourably to the DTS mix on the French DVD, although here it sounds slightly less aggressive, particularly during the fight scenes. There's not a huge amount of difference between them, but the French disc's variant strikes me as having very slightly more "oomph". Given that two completely different colour grades seem to have been created for the two different markets, it's not impossible that the same applies to the audio, although it would strike me as a little odd given that the film was released dubbed into French in French cinemas.
English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles are provided.
One issue that should be pointed out is that this DVD features the R-rated US/UK cut of the film rather than the European version. While the R-rated version does not delete any violence from the action sequences, it does make some slight changes, including the removal of a couple of scenes of interaction between Danny, Sam and Victoria at around the 35-40 minute mark. The R-rated cut does gain some material of its own, however, including a few shots of Bart and his thugs taking Danny to various locations to beat up non-paying clients, and some additional material at the end, with the film concluding with a 3D zoom inside a piano rather than a close-up of Danny's face. The French DVD accounted for these differences by provided the additional material from the US release as deleted scenes, while a separately released "unrated" US DVD, not reviewed here, does in fact provide the European cut. Normally I would immediately suggest seeking out the unrated version, but, since both cuts of the film contain unique footage, it's difficult to see one as being more legitimate than the other. At least the choice is there for the consumer, although including both in the same release would have been a far better option.
The bonus features on offer are not particularly impressive, and certainly pale in comparison with those offered on the French 2-disc release. The first is Director Louis Leterrier: Unleashed, a 5-minute interview in which the director discusses his origins as Luc Besson's assistant, before going on to explain the film's Glasgow setting and discuss his experience working with Jet Li. The second, The Collar Comes Off: Behind the Scenes of Unleashed, is even less interesting: a 13-minute EPK piece, it is comprised of lengthy clips from the film and interviews with Jet Li, Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman. The latter soaks up the most time and essentially gives away the entire plot, so I would highly recommend avoiding this featurette until you've actually watched the film.
Also included are two music videos by Massive Attack and the RZA, both of which make heavy use of footage from the film.
Unleashed is given an acceptable if unremarkable DVD release. While its audio is of a very high standard, its transfer is somewhat disappointing for such a visually-driven film, and the extras are so banal that they might at well not exist. The lack of the European cut is also an issue, making the French 2-disc Ultimate Edition, which features the European cut, a much better transfer and far more expansive extras (including the US cut's additional scenes as a bonus), a considerably more appealing choice overall.
Last updated: 27/05/2018 07:29:46