Danny the Dog (a.k.a. Unleashed) Review
Something tells me that Jet Li is starting to get the right idea. Let’s face it, most his previous western flicks have hardly been stunners, and those that he‘s been credited with as having a lead role have been dire to say the least. Alright we'll let Kiss of the Dragon off the hook. So when an announcement followed that he would next be working with director Louis Letterier on a film based upon a script by Luc Besson interest suddenly peaked. As if that wasn’t enough, the legendary Yuen Wo Ping came on board to coordinate the frantic fight sequences. But Danny the Dog isn’t just a martial arts film; it’s a nicely told tale with likeable characters, providing Jet Li with his best material yet, outside of Asia.
The story takes place in Glasgow, where a ruthless debt collector named Bart (Bob Hoskins) uses his slave, Danny (Jet Li) to d his dirty work for him. Ever since he was a young boy Danny has been brought up in a cage; treated like a dog, even with a collar placed around his neck. His only master is Bart and by his command only will he fight. As he’s grown older Danny begins to find interests in other things, he begins to naturally question his place in life and dreams of someplace else. His curiosity for the outside world is soon catered for, when after a car crash involving himself and Bart he is free to explore the city. He goes back to the place where he saw his first piano and where a kind old man named Sam greeted him. Sam invites him to his home, where he soon meets Sam’s daughter, Victoria. Over time Danny learns a little more about enjoying life and the importance of family. But his happiness is soon disturbed when Bart enters the picture once more and demands that Danny return home to him.
O.K. Let’s get one thing straight - Danny the Dog is pure madness. There’s a gritty realism that perpetuates throughout the film, and yet to a considerably large degree Danny’s world is almost surreal. Every event that happens within this world is spurred on by fantastical coincidence, and despite its Glasgow setting there are no Glaswegians or drunken fights; but let that not stop it from aiming high and delivering on almost all fronts. The storyline itself is an intriguing one nonetheless. Danny’s predicament most certainly earns the audiences’ sympathy, despite it reeling off cliché after cliché in true, by the numbers fashion - which it ultimately uses to its own advantage. Both the good and bad guys are quite stereotypical in their execution and yet they’re played so willingly so that it becomes easy acceptance. If you take all of this unashamed absurdness onboard and go along with the ride you’ll find an immensely enjoyable film that actually does deliver its promised poignancy, amidst some remarkably impressive action and brilliant performances.
The film kicks off with perhaps the best opening for any film this year; an incredible fight sequence that features some inventive choreography and relentless pacing. This does remain the best piece of the whole film though, which isn’t a bad thing as the subsequent action sequences each manage to offer something a little different, but it’s such an eye opener that you wonder if the rest of the film can live up to this kind of kineticism. To some degree it can, and it is undeniably brutal in its depiction. While the action does remain intense throughout it is used more sparingly than would be expected, however Letterier has managed to finely balance this alongside its drama and comedic elements. As a result the film briskly passes by, but in turn this creates some internal problems.
Simply put, Danny the Dog is just too short. The film doesn’t market itself as just another action film; it’s a drama with some genuine sincerity and as such it should bring us more in the way of characterisation. What it does deliver is well played out, but it lacks extra padding. Each scene shifts to the next one with too much ease and rapid editing that enables these characters to cross paths and simply accept their given situation. Morgan Freeman’s character, Sam knows not to ask questions until Danny feels ready to answer them. This is fair enough and soon he takes him home where his daughter, Victoria comes home one evening to find Danny standing there, to which she replies with an energetic “Hi”! She never asks what a complete stranger is doing in her house - though he’s cute so that’s a plus point - and then before we know it Danny is part of the family. The discernable timeframe and events are not greatly acknowledged and although good efforts are made to have these characters interact to the point that their love for one another is believable it still feels like there’s more missing. In the end Sam is just a nice guy and that’s reason enough for him to take a lethal stranger into his house, however innocent he may appear. But we still buy into it. Naturally with so many bridges to cross it achieves much of what it sets out to do easily enough and even with some plot discrepancies, crippled by a slight run time it stays captivating.
Still there are several other grievances that could be deemed as nothing but nit picking. The film’s location is a perfect choice, yet if you didn’t know it was filmed in Glasgow you might easily mistake it for London, as I did. There’s a strange scent in the air, it doesn’t remotely feel like Glasgow; everybody talks in thick London accents which makes you wonder what was behind the creative decisions in filming in Glasgow and tinkering with regional dialect. I presume that in order to translate overseas better this method was adopted so that the film avoided the same kind of difficulties that Trainspotting faced a few years back. In addition there are a few other missed plot points, such as Danny being a martial arts expert; considering the time he’s spent locked up, and a couple of clichéd scenes that have been borrowed from other films. But with all that said and done Danny the Dog still comes up trumps. By the end of it all - after all the hardships that Danny has gone through - it ends on a high. There’s a feel good air in its emotional conclusion, which may set off a couple of tears. Flawed, perhaps. Rewarding? Totally.
The role of Danny is tailor made for Li, literally. Luc Besson was asked by Li, after they completed Kiss of the Dragon to come up with a film specifically for him; the result is a performance which is more about reaction and physical communication rather than heavy amounts of dialogue. And while Li is still improving on his English this works out fine, particularly considering that his character is meant to be slightly child-like and innocent, not to mention raised as it were - a dog. Bob Hoskins puts in a brilliant turn as Danny’s master, Bart and goes so far as to steal every scene he’s in, while Morgan Freeman admirably coasts through, playing the kind of character that he’s been doing for years on film. Kerry Condon, though slightly underused puts in some charm and produces a solid enough chemistry with star, Li.
If you’re too impatient for either the theatrical or R1 DVD releases then your best bet is Panorama Distribution’s excellent R3 2-disc collection. The discs come in an attractively designed digi-pack, that when encased in the slip cover reveals Danny’s eyes.
Danny the Dog is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamophically enhanced. Letterier has obviously gone for a dark and gritty look, which is further enhanced by fine grain - not an easy film to transfer onto DVD. However it holds up well; contrast levels are slightly low but blacks and shadow detail are very good, with a minimal amount of Edge Enhancement throughout. The palette, which reflects the tone of the film is made up of grey and green hues, with skin tones generally looking saturated. Day scenes are also fairly dark, which again is a stylistic choice. Overall detail is strong, with only very slight softness for wider shots.
English DTS-ES, Cantonese 5.1 and Mandarin 5.1 Surround tracks are available here. No prizes for guessing which one I went for. The English DTS-ES is a real work out for the home cinema set up. Danny the Dog‘s fight scenes are particularly brutal and the track does a great job in replicating this; bones cracking and fists crashing carry strong resonance. When it comes to particular fights; for example the swimming pool encounter the surrounds are put to superb use, with cheers coming across greatly, while at the forefront Danny is kicking seven bells out of his opponents. There’s also plenty of ambience outdoors which is given attention: birds tweeting, cars passing by etc. Dialogue is crisp and well centred for the dramatic moments, which rounds off an excellent track.
The following extras feature optional subtitles, unless marked with an *.
Full Versions of Action Scenes (10.32)
Here you can view four of the film’s action sequences in their uncut form. These are “Jewellery Fight”, “Swimming Pool Fight”, “Final Fight Part 1” and “Final Fight Part 2”. These are presented non-anamorphically and with time codes. These scenes are unfinished and a little rough in places, with visible wires for a couple of shots and an incomplete soundtrack. The “Jewellery Fight” is no better here than the one we see in the finished film. In fact a couple of edits here have been removed for the main feature which is a good move. The “Swimming Pool Fight” is not much more violent than how we see it originally; a couple of extra shots include some rubbish gloating from Danny’s opponents and a little moment with a knife. “Final Fight Part 1” adds little more than one of Danny’s opponents hobbling a little, after getting his leg broken along with a tiny dialogue exchange between Hoskins and the mysterious man in white; while “Final Fight Part 2” offers a few additional moves. All in all we’re really not missing anything.
Making Of (36.18)
This is a French making of that requires English subtitles in order to enjoy it, although there‘s plenty of interviews in English. It starts of by informing us that Jet Li specifically asked Luc Besson to tailor a script for him, which became Danny the Dog, followed by some words from Li who explains that he wanted a role that would challenge his acting, but that he was warned he’d be making a film that wouldn’t be backed by a major studio. Things move on to prop making and discussing language barriers, which is usually a little more difficult for Li, but Besson had got around this problem. Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins are discussed, particularly over how they deliver their own lines and how they add personal touches to them. Jet Li talks about preparing for his role, with the director explaining his character’s growth and loyalty to his “master” which is interspersed by a look at the action sequences and choreography. From here the film’s emotional moments are mentioned, with particular references going to Jet Li once again and how he achieved his tearful moments; with Morgan Freeman providing firm support. Letterier then talks a little about the casting of Kerry Condon, and we get to see some behind the scenes footage of her preparing and learning to play piano. Bob Hoskins is next, playing the role of Bart that was originally envisioned with Albert Finney, who couldn’t do it due to other commitments. Hoskins wasn’t even second choice but it’s great that he was eventually selected. Letterier explains that he found Hoskins after watching “The Long Good Friday”, and Hoskins immediately jumped at the chance. Letterier is evidently impressed by Hoskin’s professionalism and talks him up a treat. Letterier talks about the film’s dialogue before moving on to discussing Yuen Wo Ping’s action choreography. Here we see Yuen Wo Ping at work, designing the fights and making them as gritty as possible. A selection of behind the scenes clips rounds of this feature.
Making Of FX (2.04)
This is a look at the CG rendering of a piano, played by Danny’s mother. It’s a well executed shot but none too interesting. No dialogue.
Deleted Scene (0.43)
This is a brief fight sequence, drenched in blue lighting that involves Danny beating up some thugs, while Bob Hoskins sits on a staircase watching. No dialogue.
NG - Collection of Outtakes (3.25) *
A couple of funny little moments here, including Morgan Freeman and a spot of improv, Li knocking over boxes of crisps while shopping and Hoskins delivering his little speech on family values.
Trailer (2.18) *
This appears to be the French theatrical trailer, which runs for quite some length. It paints the film as a very dark piece of work, with very little in the way of spoilers.
Music Video (RZA - “Baby Boy”) - 3.03 *
Pardon my ignorance, but until now I thought RZA was a male rap artist. Anyway, this is a song from the film which I can’t seem to recall. I’m sure it’s great for fans.
Danny the Dog is a lot of fun, even with a few flaws. It lives up to its trailer, which is as good as you could hope for and it has great reply value. The performances are wonderful, with Jet Li and Bob Hoskins absolutely shining through with their given material. The script has some lovely little touches and has its own themes of learning to be human and appreciating life, which carries over well.
Panorama Distribution’s release is a solidly presented set, which is well worth picking up now.