Tuesday, 3 February 2009
UNLEASHED (aka DANNY THE DOG) (2005)
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Starring: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon & Bob Hoskins
Unleashed really is a unique picture. Part drama, part fairytale, part martial arts action the film marks a brave direction for Jet Li as he fuses some of his best acting with some of his finest (and toughest) martial arts combat. Written by Luc Besson, specifically for Li, and directed by Transporter 2 helmer Louis Leterrier, Unleashed features excellent support from Hollywood heavyweights Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins. But the film belongs to Li, who gives a tour de force commitment to his portrayal of the downtrodden Danny.
Bart (Hoskins) is a nefarious gangster who uses his human killing machine, Danny (Li) to aid him in the collection of debts. Raising Danny from a small boy, training him in martial arts and keeping him tethered with a special collar, much like a dog, Bart controls Danny’s every move using him as an attack animal for his most violent confrontations. Despite his ability to maim and kill, Danny is at heart a sweet natured person who has known nothing but this life of violence. Like a dog he follows, obeys and whimpers at every command spat out by Bart. Longing for a normal life and an answer to his memories of piano playing, salvation arrives in the form of a kindly blind piano tuner, Sam (Freeman). Danny befriends Sam and after narrowingly escaping with his life from Bart, goes to live with him and his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). Here, he begins to free himself of his former life as Sam and Victoria welcome Danny into their family. Through these two Danny learns to express himself more as a human, learning the virtues of music, relationships and the dangers of ice cream. However, Bart is never too far behind forcing Danny to compete in illegal underground fight tournaments, making it harder and harder for him to let go of his past.
Li really pushes himself here, both mentally and physically. Delivering on both the drama and action front, Li helps make this modern fairytale break out from the norm with a truly captivating performance. At first he is quiet and docile, trudging along after his gangster family with barely a thought of his own. Mimicking the nuances of a dog, Li shows the patheticness his character has descended into after years of abuse. But as the story unfolds and Danny comes into contact with more humane individuals, Li deftly manages his character’s transformation from mute killer to caring human being. Danny embarks on an emotional rollercoaster and Li rides it well, obviously relishing the chance to really stretch his acting chops. As mentioned, there is able support, with both Freeman and Hoskins inhabiting their characters well. Kerry Condon also shines as the sweet and ever-loving Victoria, and brings a child like innocence to her and Li’s relationship which helps to reinforce the fairytale aspect.
Leterrier’s direction is slick and tight making Glasgow, the film’s setting, appear dark and enchanting. Crisp, inventive photography and eye-catching visuals give the film a polished look and, again, emphasise the modern fairytale feeling. Yet, despite this the film is not afraid to get down and dirty, and down and dirty it gets in some incredible action set pieces. The opening brawl is a bruiser, with Li letting loose with kicks, punches and, most of all, head butts. Brisk, brutal and brilliant this fight shows that Li and choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping (Iron Monkey, Tiger Cage2) set out to do something different. The fighting style in Unleashed seems to mesh Li’s traditional Wushu skills with knuckle busting street fighting. And it works. A raw edge is achieved, creating a very real and very violent feel to the fights, and climaxes in a superb finale that sees Li taking on Michael Ian Lambert (Thunderbolt) in a toilet cubicle of all places. Yet the standout sequence is the swimming pool fight. Li takes on a number of opponents (including Silvio Simic and Scott Adkins) in a sustained fight that blends brutal martial arts, stunning choreography and some sweet wirework into one of best fights seen in a Western martial arts flick. Some complain that there is not enough fighting in this film, most of it being relegated to the first and last thirds. This is not true as the action compliments the story and works well within its frame. Plus, it’s worth waiting for as it is some of Li’s finest work and certainly his best in a non-Hong Kong action film.
An excellent film, Unleashed proves Li is comfortable competing in both the action and drama arenas. Some may be put off by the slightly wayward tone, veering from gritty ultra-violence to sweet-natured drama with relative ease, but they would be doing themselves a disservice in not seeing it as this is one of Li’s best films to date. Recommended.