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UNLEASHED (R) (2005)

Rogue Pictures

Official Site

Director: Louis Leterrier

Producers: Luc Besson, Steve Chaseman, Jet Li

Written by: Luc Besson

Cast: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon


At last there is a martial arts film with a dramatic narrative to rival the lightning intensity of the action. Or, on the other hand, purists might say that this movie is an abomination; having a message of sentimentality that laboriously sucks the life out of the film. Yeah, maybe they are right, but it is virtuoso sucking by consummate masters. I think I’d stand in line for that.

So Jet Li wants more credibility as an actor? Not being a fool, he returns to Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, with whom he had worked on Kiss Of The Dragon, for a story and screenplay. Besson comes up with this little kernel about Danny the Dog, a super-talented martial arts fighter who has been raised since a toddler by a gangster for the sole purpose of serving as a human attack dog to help collect debts from other gangsters. In other hands, this might have been silly. However, with Kamen, whose screen credit is for artistic consulting rather than actual writing, Besson crafts a nifty allegory with implications to exercise the nimblest mind, while in a framework even George W. Bush could follow. If you find this story boring, it is because you are not paying attention, or it is saying something that you just don’t like.

As for the visuals, they turn to director Louis Leterrier and cinematographer Pierre Morel, both of whom, with Kamen, helped Besson turn out The Transporter. For Unleashed, they provided an environment of dark and visceral realism with the various filmic effects of the martial arts genre rationed for greater impact. Their purpose is the service of the unsettling narrative, and it works. This is not quite the comic book styling mastered by Quentin Tarantino, but a beautiful and tragic imagery that provides a continuous tension to illuminate the story.

The film’s sound follows similar lines with equal purpose. The hauntingly realistic sound of a human head cracking on a floor is unencumbered by any laughably clichéd martial arts “woosh.” The ambient sounds of this film are so good as to merit a track on the soundtrack. As for the music, I am a serious devotee of the classic orchestral incidental music, and I will readily admit that I was dreading what I suspected would be an overwrought score by the band, Massive Attack. I should have known better. They achieve an exquisite balance of subtle restraint and purposeful excess, providing an aural environment that is atmospheric and in perfect harmony with the narrative, but capable of accents that will get the attention of the most jaded young moviegoer. Together, music and sound are especially critical to the success of this film, on a thematic level. So I thank all of the technicians involved for an impressive achievement.

So we come to what really makes this movie, the acting. Who to play Bart, the gangster who has raised a human being to be a dog? He has to be a villain of considerable magnitude, but with plausible human dimensions. Bob Hoskins goes over the top, making this toweringly evil man breathe the same air as us all, only smelling considerably worse. It has been a long time since his enormous talents were put to such good use. Morgan Freeman as Sam, the noble foil to Bart’s animalistic evil, chews up his character in similar fashion, but with somewhat less success. This blind piano tuner embodies a faith in a more rewarding artistic life with dedication to principles, tempered with the tension of a realistic concern for potential threats of violence. The purity of his sweet loving openness, however, is just a bit saccharine. This is not specifically Freeman’s fault. If there is a weakness in the screenplay, this is it.

Between these extremes is the character Jet Li sought to challenge his acting skills, the dog of extreme violence who rediscovers his humanity. There is no question that he brings the physical control that the role requires, rising to every demand, expressing the character in every nuance of his martial arts. The potential to fail would be found in the more subtle moments. Okay, so he is no Laurence Olivier, but neither does he fail. For my money, he delivers, and I’m inclined to be pretty damned harsh on these athletic types.

Lastly, Kerry Condon is notable as Sam’s musically talented teenaged daughter, the idealistic and loving innocent to contrast the depravity of the human dog. She has as sincere and unaffected a performance as you might reasonably hope for from a young actress, and she shines with an occasional brilliance that bodes well for her future.

The sum of these parts makes an acceptable dramatic movie, with some impressive performances. It also functions as a pretty fair action film, with some outstanding fight scenes that are heightened by the deeper narrative. Unleashed exceeds this aforementioned sum by playing these two aspects of film against each other, resulting in something that transcends the genre. I’m not saying that you will love this movie even if you hate “kung-fu.” Nor am I saying that you won’t notice the massive implausibility and unresolved questions that go with every fantasy film. And some of you are going to be bored to death with the “slow parts.” I am saying that I think that you probably ought to watch this film anyway. You will be pleasantly surprised.

—Steven Harding

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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