Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Luc Besson, Robert Kamen
Cast: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon, Andy Beckwith, Scott Adkins, Silvio Simac, Christian Gazio, Michael Ian Lambert, Kazu Patrick Tang
Running Time: 133 min.
By Z Ravas
Supposedly after shooting the particularly bloody Kiss of the Dragon, Jet Li wanted to reteam with French writer/producer Luc Besson for a film that would actually depict the consequences of violence. If that was the case, then they certainly succeeded with Unleashed: I can’t think of a Jet Li movie with more brutal fight scenes than this. Rather than glorify all the bloodshed – which is admittedly exciting to watch thanks to the efforts of Li and choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping – the film examines the damage incurred on the soul of Li’s character Danny “the Dog,” who is one deeply wounded individual.
Danny’s spent the better part of his life under the control of a small-time gangster/loan shark played by Bob Hoskins, who treats Danny quite literally like a dog. With his metal collar on, Danny is a blank slate – emotionless and mute. But take his collar off and sick him on a foe, and Danny becomes the most vicious fighter you’ve ever seen. Too bad Hoskins’ character is a bastard who keeps Danny locked in a cage and regularly abuses him.
Later in the film, circumstances intervene and Danny flees into real world. Thanks to the kind-hearted efforts of a blind piano tuner, played wonderfully by Morgan Freeman, and his step-daughter, Danny begins to feel human. He discovers a passion for music and starts to piece together the fragmented memories of his past. Of course, Bob Hoskins’ gangster isn’t going to take this lying down – Danny was responsible for bringing him in a lot of money – and everything builds to an inevitable confrontation.
Unleashed is what happens when you actually put a lot of thought and care into your action movie’s screenplay, and hire Academy Award-worthy actors like Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins. Sure, the fight scenes are spectacular – how could they not be, with Jet Li and Yuen Woo-Ping involved – but there’s nearly an hour stretch of dramatic material, without any fighting at all, and it’s just as absorbing to watch thanks to the acting talent involved. Jet Li really seemed to push himself as an actor and he conveys a lot with his eyes and animal-like mannerisms. Morgan Freeman brings his character to life with a deep sense of joy and humanity, and you can tell Freeman treats this role just as seriously as his more “prestigious” films.
Even if the story treads similar ground to his previous movies like Leon/The Professional, Luc Besson really did a wonderful job with the screenplay. You come to care for the makeshift family that Jet becomes a part of, such that I felt genuine regret when Bob Hoskins’ character reared his ugly mug again – even if it meant that “more action” was on its way.
Director Louis Leterrier was a Besson protege, working on this film and Transporter 2 before making his way into Hollywood blockbuster territory with Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans. Given the dismal success of those latter two films, it probably goes without saying that Leterrier’s forte is for smaller, less special effects-heavy films like this. I doubt anyone would ever accuse Leterrier of being a great director, per se, but Unleashed is by far his best work. He draws excellent performances from his cast and films the fight scenes in such a manner that you can see every move. The editing and camera angles are all top notch, and the infrequent use of wires is not terribly distracting. I’d love for Leterrier to take a break from the Hollywood game and do another film like this or even team back up with Jason Statham.
If you’re worried that Unleashed is all weepy drama and no action, don’t be. The ending fight scene between Jet Li and Michael Lambert is one of the best fights of Jet’s career. There’s a sequence where the two of them are trading blows in a cramped bathroom stall that is nothing short of breathtaking – I honestly don’t even know how Yuen Woo-Ping went about choreographing such a fight because the space they’re fighting in is so cramped. It seems like this close-quarters match must have been a personal challenge for Woo-Ping, perhaps a way to keep things interesting after all these years of choreographing fights. If anything, the man outdid himself; it’s really an exhilarating scene.
It’s worth noting that Jet Li’s opponent in this scene, Michael Lambert, is no slouch himself when it comes to combat; he’s one of the busiest stuntman in Hollywood, having worked on films as diverse as The Bourne Ultimatum, Batman Begins, and Gladiator. He also served as Chris Evans’ stunt double on this year’s Captain America and is assistant swordmaster on next year’s John Carter (I’m really good at using IMDB, guys). Needless to say, the guy’s resume speaks for itself and at 6’1″ he proves to be more than a formidable opponent for Jet Li.
Fearless is still probably my favorite film Jet has made since breaking into Hollywood, but Unleashed has to be his best English language picture. Sure, Kiss of the Dragon had some spectacular action but Unleashed goes the extra mile by adding a story with heart and characters worth caring about. An understated but memorable score from Massive Attack only strengthens the film. Luc Besson and Jet Li have proven to be a most formidable team.
Z Ravas’ Rating: 8.5/10