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
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.