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Hard Punches - Soft Drama
Jet Li Balances Two Worlds
By Cole Smithey
Jet Li plays a caged slave named Danny who's been raised to act as a martial arts attack dog by his loan shark warden Bart (Bob Hoskins) in collecting debts from deadbeat clients. Whenever Bart removes the metal collar from Danny's neck, it signals a consequence of flashy ultra-violent action. Set in Glasgow, the story follows Danny's escape from his cruel keeper when he meets Sam (Morgan Freeman), a benevolent blind piano tuner, and his musically gifted stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). The pair accept the traumatized man into their humble family.
Li's fighting sequences are unique for their street-fighting style of brutality. The film is produced by Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita"), and directed by Louis Leterrier.
"Unleashed" is a cinematic oddity created by Europe's leading cottage film industry that consists of one man, Luc Besson. Besson's script fits his signature narrative template. It involves a tragically distanced character prone to violence, who is rehabilitated by a stranger. Gaps that occurred in the making of the film are coincidentally what give it its surprising curves that help compensate for frequent dips into heartstring clichés.
Before wearing out his welcome with fight choreographer Yuen Wo-ping, who had just finished work on "Kill Bill," director Louis Leterrier defined the film's opening fight sequence using plastic dolls to communicate the action to Wo-ping. What the audience sees in that initial conflict is the most ferocious fight sequence Jet Li has ever filmed. Li uses fast repeated right fist punches that send tremors of inertia through the audience. Danny liberally uses head-butts, and tears out his subject's hair with a ferocity that speaks directly to the seven months the action star spent creating the character.
After Luc Besson awarded the director title for the film (previously titled "Danny The Dog") to his apprentice Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter"), the studio producing the movie began to shrink at the promise of it being too violent. It withdrew its financing. Morgan Freeman threw a curveball of his own when he showed up for his first day of shooting and announced that he would be playing his character as blind. By this time Yuen Wo-ping and his team of assistants took back control of the remaining fight sequences they didn't match the bracing shock of the opening scene.
Danny's character represents a specific type of ambitious martial arts student who only responds to the commands of his coach or "master." He is a person outwardly doomed to go through life as a drone when he's not engaged in a specifically dictated routine of action. Danny's peculiar fighting style is like a wild animal that focuses all of its attention on one aspect of an opponent at a time rather than keeping a 360-degree awareness as practiced by most martial artists. The departure is jolting because it's foreign to the kind of fighter we know Jet Li to be. His fighting reflects the differences of his character's state of mind. It's analogous to Jackie Chan's "Drunken Master" where Chan's fighting technique changed to fit the role.
Danny's eventual escape into the precarious safety of family life is buffered by the classical piano music that Victoria plays. His childlike nature enables Danny to identify with playing an electronic keyboard that Sam gives him for the pure joy of making music. The dramatic tension between Danny's innate fighting ability and his capacity for peaceful family life goes slack because we want to see Jet Li fight however much the story says we should enjoy watching his character get his first ice cream headache in the romantic company of a young woman.
There's an unintended ironic subtext at play about serving two masters that gets more dispensable dominion when Bart survives one too many certain- death situations. Just when Sam has trained Danny to become his piano tuning assistant, Bart turns up to retain his long lost human attack dog. Danny's bi-polar character lets Jet Li exercise acting muscles he's never been allowed to show onscreen before. It's gratifying to see the emotional colors he creates.
In light of the odd mix of rare creative personalities that put their fingerprints on the film, "Unleashed" is a pleasantly puzzling movie full of gentle charisma and fiery action. The narrative connections are comically rough, but the performances are heartfelt. There's something special here.
Rated R. 103 mins.