Li a Cage Fighter off the Leash
"Unleashed" or the rather strangely titled "Danny the Dog" as it's also known is one of those modern martial arts/action movies but most definitely not your average sort. It has those expected elements with Jet Li impressing in plenty of high paced snappy fight scenes but there is a sort of intelligence to it all, or at least more of a storyline than you would probably expect. It's by no means high brow stuff but writer Luc Besson and director Louis Leterrier have managed to deliver a semi thought provoking take on a tale of an animal trained to kill with a twist being that it's not an animal but a young man.
In "Unleashed" Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4) stars as Danny a lethal killing machine raised as a caged animal by violent gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins - Beyond the Sea) to attack on his command. After managing to escape from his master Danny finds solace with Sam (Morgan Freeman - Million Dollar Baby) a blind piano tuner who treats him with compassion. But his violent past comes back to haunt him, especially when Danny becomes inquisitive about who his mother was.
"Unleashed" is in many ways a traditional movie with 3 sections the first of which introduces us to Bart a British gangster and Danny a young man he keeps caged up wearing a dog collar who he unleashes on those he wants to hurt. As you would expect this opening series of scenes spends time building up these characters with Bart being for want of a better word a bastard, not just to those he wants to hurt but to Danny as well. And then there is Danny a lethal killing machine who Bart over the years has brain washed, training him to attack when he removes the dog collar and gives the command. It's snappy action packed stuff with a whole series of scenes which are visually impressive as well as brutal and although Bart is a nasty piece of work, Bob Hoskins masterfully creates an almost caricature like character so that his abusiveness is a little funny, in an over the top sort of way.
Once the introductions are done with we get a major switch with Danny having escaped and found solace with Sam the blind piano tuner and Victoria his young protege. It's a major shift in storyline because it turns "Unleashed" in to a tale of Danny learning to live having spent most of his life as a caged animal and of course learning to think for himself. Again there is something comical about this and not just from the way the animal like Danny struggles with a lack of table manners but also his reasoning such as in the supermarket scene when violence breaks out around him yet he calmly carries on about his business.
This middle section is by no means complex but it has a charm about it, a warmth at the compassion which Sam and Victoria show towards Danny making it a little tender in places. It's also not so much thought provoking but makes you think about the obvious comparisons between Danny and say a dog trained for killing then shown another life.
Of course you get the third act and the return of the violence as Danny having learned to think for himself is no longer at the command of someone else as he seeks out who his mother was. It's a nice progression of story and has plenty of action sequences which will please those who want action upon action upon action scenes ramping up the intensity and brutality as they go.
The trouble with "Unleashed" is, is that it is a little heavy handed when it comes to the storyline with the shift between the 3 sections being very obvious as if you are watching one sort of movie with another one spliced into the middle of it. The styles are too vastly different and I would hazard a guess that those expecting an all out martial arts action movie will find the middle section a little unexpected and boring. It's a clever idea but handled slightly wrong.
Aside from that "Unleashed" has some nice performances and as already mentioned Bob Hoskins is more than adequate at playing Bart with a streak of out right bastard about him. But it is Jet Li who really impresses me and not just when it comes to the martial arts scenes which are expectedly brilliant. In that middle section of "Unleashed" where Li gets to play a more normal sort of role there is a tenderness to his acting and a touch of comedy, something you don't necessarily expect from Jet Li yet he does it so well. Plus adding to things is Morgan Freeman who puts in a restrained but pleasant supporting performance as Sam the blind piano tuner.
What this all boils down to is that "Unleashed" is not just your run of the mill fast paced action movie, it has quite a clever storyline and some great performances, although saying that it is at times a little heavy handed in the way it works this story of a caged animal/ human.