By Shawn McKenzie 05/13/2005
There is something that I never noticed before until I saw Unleashed…I’ve never seen a Jet Li movie that I overwhelmingly liked. This was pointed out to me when I told my brother that I was going to see Li’s latest movie, and after I watched it, I realized that fact. Some were better than others were (The One was decent; Cradle 2 the Grave was not so much), but none of them were awesome, at least to me. I’ve only seen a handful of his Hong Kong movies, but even those movies didn’t blow me away (Lethal Weapon 4 was my actual first exposure to Li.) This movie isn’t going to change things for me either, though it is the first time I’ve actually seen him act instead of just kicking butt.
Danny (Li) is a brainwashed killing machine held at bay with a collar. He lives in a cage like a dog in Glasgow, Scotland, and the man who put him there (and did his brainwashing) is a vicious loan shark named “Uncle” Bart (Bob Hoskins.) Bart uses Danny like an attack dog whenever he needs clients to pay the money that is owed to him. When the collar is on, Danny is docile, but when it is off, nothing can stop him. Bart and his cronies, Lefty (Dylan Brown), Righty (Andy Beckwith), and Raffles (Vincent Regan), travel around taking care of business with Danny as their weapon. During one of their jobs, they enter Mackintosh Antiques Warehouse, where Danny is told to wait and watch for a red light before he comes in and attack. While waiting, he meets Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner who makes Danny realize that there are some nice people in this world. Danny helps Sam tune this particular piano, and he is so charmed by it that he fails to notice the red light. Danny does his attack thing, but he doesn’t do it in time, and Bart is bloody with anger. It doesn’t matter anyway, because Bart strikes a deal for Danny to participate in some fight-to-the-death matches (he would prefer them to be a little more entertaining though…because Danny manages to kill one opponent in…like…two seconds.) After a disagreement with one of his clients results in Bart’s car getting shot up, Danny escapes and runs away. He finds Sam again, who takes him home and introduces him to his 18-year-old stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon.) Victoria is going to school in Glasgow to study music, but they both are from New York. Her only parent is Sam, because her dad died, her mother remarried Sam, and then she died when Victoria was younger. Both of them are very friendly, and neither of them asks too many questions about Danny’s past, including why he wears the collar. They do notice that he has a mind of a 10-year-old boy, so they try to teach him things, like how to find a ripe fruit, eat ice cream, kiss, and play the piano. It’s not until Victoria exposes him to her rendition of Mozart’s Sonata that it brings up some repressed memories about his own mother (Jaclyn Lee.) One day, while buying some fun stuff for his new family at Maddy’s (Carole Ann Wilson) grocery store, he runs into one of Bart’s thugs, who brings him back into Bart’s fold (Bart didn’t die in the car shoot-up.) Bart is happy to have his attack dog back, but is ticked that Danny now refuses to hurt people. He threatens to hurt Sam and Victoria if he doesn’t participate in the matches. Danny faces the possibility that he may never get to see his new family again.
The movie was directed by Louis Leterrier, whose previous movie, 2002’s The Transporter, was a brainless movie with lots of really cool action. The acting in that movie was atrocious, but the action was so cool that I gave it an above average grade. Luc Besson, who wrote this movie, wrote The Transporter as well. The acting is better in this one, including Li, but for some reason, the action isn’t as cool (it was originally called Danny the Dog, but they changed it afterwards.) Maybe it was just surprising to see star Jason Statham kicking butt in The Transporter, but I expected more from Li. Besson is an old pro at writing scripts that have an actual storyline and decent acting, with 1990’s La Femme Nikita and 1994’s Léon: The Professional under his belt (The Transporter may be one of those rare cases when the acting didn’t stack up the same as his previous films.) Freeman does okay in a role that didn’t require him to do a lot of action. Hoskins was a caricature of a bad guy, but at least it was fun to watch. Condon is sweet as Victoria, but she didn’t even look like an 18-year-old (and even if she was, it looked creepy to see her kiss the 42-year-old Li.)
I guess the biggest question I had was how Danny got his martial arts skills. I seriously doubt that the overweight Bart taught him his skills, because otherwise the loan shark wouldn’t even need Danny. I read somewhere else on another review of the movie that Danny had gotten his skills on the street, but that is never mentioned in the movie (or at least I didn’t catch it.)
Unleashed is yet another average Li movie, but at least it displayed his acting skills. I’m not saying that Li will ever win an Oscar, but at least he shouldn’t be afraid to take on more roles that involve acting. Like his colleague Jackie Chan, he is getting a little long in the tooth, so he might not be able to do action flicks for much longer. I doubt he will ever do a movie that didn’t involve martial arts, but even if he does, at least he has some actual acting talent to fall back on.
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