David and Margaret of The Movie Show didn’t really like Unleashed, giving it a good panning, although admitting that they liked the action sequences and some of the performances. This raised my hackles a little — I liked this film, though I can see why some would feel that it’s a little cliched and lacking in dramatic depth. Nonetheless, I really think it’s the best thing that Jet Li’s done in the Western cinema world and very like several other recent films from the Luc Besson stable (think The Transporter from the same director, maybe even The Fifth Element in some ways.)
The story is centered around Danny, played by Jet Li, who’s a rather unique piece of hired muscle employed by Bart (Bob Hoskins). He’s unique in that he’s not really employed — Bart owns Danny, treating him like a dog, kept collared and chained up when he’s not hurting people as per Bart’s instructions. This arrangement has persisted since Danny was a small child, and he’s never known anything but fighting — when he’s not doing his job, he stands motionless and empty-eyed, saying nothing except when asked a direct question and little even then.
Bart uses Danny to add threat to his standover tactics, collecting money from various businesses on pain of, well, pain. The film starts with a series of these transactions in which we see how effective Danny is once the collar comes off. During one of these fights, Bart is offered a chance (by a bystander) to use Danny in the ring in an underground fighting tournament, fighting to the death for cash.
Separated from Bart through a series of events that I won’t spoil, Danny meets a kindly, blind piano tuner played by Morgan Freeman (in perhaps an overly cloying character sterotype) who takes him in and teaches him about many of the things he’s never known: music, cooking, family, ice-cream. Assisting in this is his step-daughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), who gently leads Danny through these experiences, providing the exuberance to match Freeman’s gravity and kindliness. Bart’s still around, however, and exerts a powerful control over Danny…
The action sequences in the film are crafted by perennial favourite, Yuen Wo-Ping, and are up to his usual level, with a bit more visceral, bone-crunching impact than the work he did for The Matrix series — Danny flies into each fight like a wild thing, punching and kicking repeatedly until each opponent succumbs. There’s some weapons fighting as well, and a match in the underground ring between Jet Li and enormous European taekwando champion, Silvio Simac.
For all the fighting, though, it’s the dramatic part of the film that actually holds most of the audience’s attention. Li gives quite a nuanced performance, with a lot more depth than I’ve seen in the majority of his work. It’s easy to connect with him and feel sympathetic. Everyone else in the film is completely over-the-top and a little bit stereotyped: Bob Hoskins is driven and incredibly slimy; Morgan Freeman is a paragon of virtue; Kerry Condon is a sweet, giddy young girl; and Bart’s array of thugs are suitably thuggish and slow. This actually adds a bit of comedy to the film, dealing though it does with violence and death: Bart’s antics in trying to maintain control of his little world are frequently laughter-inducing, and Danny’s voyage of discovery in the middle of the film is often sweetly funny.
Definitely worth watching for fans of Li’s work, Luc Besson’s sillier films and kinetic action movies.