"Unleashed," which was originally titled the more provocative and fitting "Danny the Dog," may be a more palatable name for the target audience of martial arts fans, but the generic change is almost absurd in its subjective literalization. Yes, a character is unleashed, but such a title (and the misleading marketing campaign) does the actual film no justice at all. There are plenty of thrilling, bone-crunching, gloriously choreographed fight scenes, but they occur in between the more enduring core of "Unleashed," which is a character-centric family drama.
Since childhood, Danny (Jet Li) has been a virtual pet for nasty owner/crime boss Bart (Bob Hoskins), who has trained him to be an unstoppable killing machine whenever the leash around his neck is taken off. Having lived for so long as a brainwashed prisoner, being used to fight in deadly gladiator-style fights in order to rack Bart up some fast cash, Danny knows no other way of life. This changes, however, when a car accident/drive-by shooting presumably kills Bart. Knowing nothing about him but with a deep faith in the innate goodness of people, blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) welcomes Danny into his home, where they and Sam's 18-year-old stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), begin something resembling a family. Just as Danny is starting to come out of his shell and realize that there are limitless possibilities for his future, Bart, alive and well, reenters the picture, demanding that Danny reform to his old ways. If he can't have Danny, no one can.
Directed by Louis Leterrier (2002's "The Transporter
") and written by Luc Besson (1994's "The Professional") with a great deal more attention to character shading than the genre usually permits, "Unleashed" is viscerally brutal, arrestingly cathartic, and, most important, unexpectedly humane. This is not just a mindless action movie with fight set-pieces thread loosely with a throwaway narrative, but a tightly thought-out drama that also happens to have some great moments of hand-to-hand and weapon-bearing combat. The makers of the incomprehensible likes of the recent "XXX: State of the Union
" and "Kingdom of Heaven
" would do wise to take a look at the work from fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen (2004's "Kill Bill: Vol. 2
") and editor Nicolas Trembasiewicz to see just how cohesive and taut action sequences can be achieved with someone at the helm who knows what they are doing.
In its story of an imprisoned innocent who manages to escape, finally finding respect and happiness until his dark past comes knocking, "Unleashed" resembles a modern-day ode to a Grimm fairy tale. Jet Li's (2003's "Cradle 2 the Grave
") nuanced, surprisingly layered performance as "Danny the Dog" is the key to which viewers are welcomed into the predicament he faces and are able to care about the outcome. Li is a master fight performer, but who knew he was so talented as a dramatic actor able to turn in such a low-key and lovable turn?
As Danny's virtuous saviors, Sam and Victoria, Morgan Freeman (2004's "Million Dollar Baby
") is consistently fine, making the art of performing look as easy as breathing, and Kerry Condon (2004's "Intermission") is simply effervescent. Condon looks a little old to be playing an 18-year-old, but she slides into the role with such an air of warmth, humor, and sagacity that it hardly seems to matter. And, as the unstoppably vicious Bart, Bob Hoskins (2005's "Son of the Mask
") develops one of the more despicableand yet strangely three-dimensionalvillains in some time.
"Unleashed" slides effortlessly between the down-and-dirty and the charmingly tender as it spins a simple, somewhat contrived, tale that is well-written for what it is. The film is also visually gritty, perhaps too much so as the green-tinted, underlit cinematography by Pierre Morel often appears to have been filmed with moss and fungi growing over the camera lens. The finished product isn't groundbreaking, nor is it quite the action-packed entertainment the ads are touting it as, but its emotional center raises the stakes and gives the proceedings a fleeting important to the viewer that similar releases of this sort usually fail to do. Efficient, fast (even when the pacing slows down) and refreshingly unpretentious, "Unleashed" achieves exactly what it sets out to do, no more and no less, but enough to make it a reliably engrossing moviegoing experience.