Should I Watch..? 'Unleashed'
What's the big deal?
Unleashed (also known as Danny The Dog) is an action drama film released in 2005 directed by Louis Leterrier. Written and produced by Luc Besson, the film stars Jet Li as the violent champion of a thuggish loan shark, raised as a child and wholly subservient to who suddenly discovers a desire for freedom through kindness and music. The film also stars Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins and Kerry Condon. Never intended as a big release, the film nevertheless made a respectable $50.8 million worldwide and also earned praise from critics who called the film Li's best English-language movie at the time. The film also features a soundtrack by Massive Attack and produced by the RZA.
What's it about?
Cockney loan shark Bart has an unusual method of making his clients pay. He has an associate named Danny, an Asian man raised by Bart and who is trained to kill whenever Bart removes a metal collar around Danny's neck. Known as Danny the dog, Danny becomes a shy and withdrawn individual when the collar is replaced who sees Bart as his master despite being mistreated at his hands. After meeting blind pianist Sam at an antiques store when Bart pays the store a visit, Danny finds himself being entered into a deadly underground fighting competition.
However, the fight is a set-up as Bart is attacked and Danny flees gravely injured. Finding his way back to Sam, the old man and his stepdaughter Victoria help Danny to recover and help him discover his lost humanity through basic human interactions as well as learning the piano. Some weeks later, the three of them prepare to head to New York where Danny can lead a new life but a chance encounter with one of Bart's henchmen has the wounded gangster missing his pet project. And before they know it, Bart is back and looking to reunite with his favourite dog...
Release Date (UK)
19th August, 2005
Action, Crime, Drama
What's to like?
The 2000s were a prolific time for one-man French film industry Luc Besson who produced several action films like Unleashed, The Transporter and its sequels and perhaps most important of all, Taken. Handing over the directing duties to Leterrier for what would be his solo directing debut proved to be a wise decision as his frequent collaborator knew exactly how to replicate Besson's hyperkinetic style. This film is definitely one of the more brutal films you'll find Li in - no fancy wire work or balletic duels, this is bloody and raw combat although Li still excels in this style. But this is a change of pace and setting - Glasgow's seedy underbelly has rarely looked seedier - and Li is no stranger to lighting up the screen with his considerable martial arts talent.
However, there is also something else about the film I admired. It offers something much deeper than a straight up action film usually does, providing Li with a rare opportunity to act as well as do this punchy kicky things. Granted, he's no Olivier but it all makes a refreshing change from the norm which is what this film is about. Hoskins, who will always be Eddie Valiant from Who Framed Roger Rabbit in my eyes, delivers a genuinely menacing and vicious performance that reminds you of how great an actor he was. It's a film with a heart at the centre which is rare for these type of films. Compare this to The Raid with its visceral violence and wonderful fight choreography but a distinct lack of emotion behind it. It's just guys beating each other up and no matter how good that might be, I can't help but want something more. Unleashed gives you that more.
- Besson wrote the parts of Danny and Sam specifically for Li and Freeman but Bart was originally conceived to be played by Billy Connolly, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. This is why Sam mentions that they are in Glasgow during the film.
- It was Freeman's idea to make his character blind after he visited a piano school for the blind. His argument was that it would make it easier for Sam to see the child in Danny and not the vicious killer.
- Pierre Morel, who would go on to direct Taken and had directed the parkour-inspired action thriller District 13 the year before, worked on this film as the cinematographer.
What's not to like?
The trouble is, the film is hampered by the very thing it tries to be. Narratively, the film feels cobbled together of bits and pieces from other films like Van Damme's dreadful Lionheart and it never feels as believable as I'd like. The whole 'underground fighting scene' has been done to death (pun not intended) in a variety of films and for me, indicates lazy screenwriting more akin to an early 90s videogame. And while I normally enjoy Freeman in whatever role he's in, he disappoints here as the blind pianist Sam. He simply never convinces and the reasons for him and his stepdaughter are in Glasgow are never explained. Come to think of it, I don't recall hearing a single Scottish accent from any cast member or extra anywhere - trust me, I know Glasgow and you're unlikely to spend any time up there without hearing one!
I can't criticise Unleashed too much because it actually doesn't do too much wrong. I wanted it to be a bit more ambitious but it feels content to remain a well-made but basic martial arts action film that strives for the middle of the road instead of the fast lane. It's isn't Li's best film overall - the majestic Hero remains an impressive and sweeping historical epic - but I would agree that it's Li best English-language performance, including his appearances in the Expendables franchise. This is probably Li at his prime, a whirling dervish of death leaping about the place like Buster Keaton or Li's long-time rival Jackie Chan.
Should I watch it?
Unleashed feels very familiar at the beginning, mirroring the style and pace of other Besson-produced action films of the time. But the story is allowed a little room to breath and to my surprise, the film is actually deeper than initially perceived. Li's acting abilities might not surpass his physical talents but the film dares to try something a little different instead of endless anonymous baddies getting kicked in the face. It's a brave and interesting film but not anything particularly spectacular.
Great For: Jet Li fans, martial-art aficionados, Bob Hoskins, blind piano players
Not So Great For: Glaswegian viewers wondering why there's so many English people about, short-term memories, action films with more going on
What else should I watch?
Besson and his company EuropaCorp continue to produce movies and TV shows that reflect Besson's Americanised style but with a slight Gallic twist. His biggest successes are definitely Taken and The Transporter, both of which have become movie trilogies and TV shows in their own right, but also consider the likes of modern western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, French thriller Tell No One and Besson's own Lucy, a big-budget action film with Scarlett Johansson which is possibly as close to an actual Black Widow movie as we're likely to get.
Li has enjoyed a career lasting since the early Eighties, starting in Asian cinema before making his Hollywood debut as the baddie in Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998. From there, things could only improve - his debut leading role came just two years later in Romeo Must Die before other projects came his way like Kiss Of The Dragon and wuxia picture The Forbidden Kingdom which finally paired Li with Jackie Chan for the first time. I don't believe that Li has found his signature role in Hollywood yet despite his performance in Hero which simply owns the screen. While Li continues to film both in the US and China, I fear time may be running out for the 55-year-old to attain the same level of success as Chan. However, I do I'm wrong.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox