This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Blimmin’ heck, it’s hot. The kind of heat that melts your ASDA fruity fried egg sweeties together into a solid, gelatinous mass. Scotsmen really weren’t designed to withstand these sort of temperatures. I mention this only because I’ve been dealing with this in the only way I know how, assembling a bedside cabinet and drinking bottles of Staropramen, a beer I can’t even pronounce. Thus should the resulting spiel seem less coherent and more disjointed than the disjointed, incoherent spiels you’re used to from this outlet I apologise, ooh, at least half heartedly.
Still, disjointed isn’t too bad a theme to start talking about a Jet Li film. After all, this is a man who’s produced some of the finest martial arts films ever committed to celluloid for decades back East, from the early Fong Sai Yuk stuff up to the awe-inspiring Hero. Yet despite a clear abundance of talent and charisma, Western producers can’t string a decent film together to save themselves. Cradle to the Grave? Do one. The closest we’ve come to ‘decent’, let alone ‘good’ was the similarly Luc Besson penned Kiss of the Dragon, so despite the slew of so-so notices we had some hope for this high concept bruiser, and for the most part they’ve been realised.
For what remains at heart a kung-fu flick, Unleashed (or Danny the Dog, as it is named out East) is something of an esoteric oddity. Set in… well, it’s quite obviously filmed in Glasgow but the complete absence of any Scottish accents and a surfeit of Cockerneys leads me to suspect it’s supposed to double for Lahhdann, the thuggish leader of a debt collecting arm of Underworld Banking PLC Bart (Bob Hoskins) plies his trade with the usual mix of threats and violence. His chief weapons are surprise, fear and his dog, Danny. He’s been trained to attack anything in the room that isn’t Bart or one of his goons until they stop moving. Which is nice. The only thing slightly unusual about this unsavoury set up is the Danny’s actually a bloke, in this case Jet Li.
After his ‘Uncle’ Bart winds up unexpectedly waylaid by a substantial but non-fatal raking of machine gun fire, a badly wounded Danny winds up in the care of kindly blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and musically inclined student Victoria (Kerry Condon), also cared for by Sam after the death of her parents. I’d rather have had a hospital personally, but I’m something of a weak loser. After recuperating, Danny explores a happier side of the human condition with a loving and oddly accepting new family unit, eating ice creams too quickly and shopping at Spar, that sort of thing. He even explores his fondness for piano music, which stirs up some memories of his barely remembered mother.
This sort of thing has a limited potential for beating people up, so it’s of little surprise when Bart and his goons (including the final reel parachuting of a random white samurai goon. How passé) show up to reclaim Danny under pain of, well, pain, directed at Sam and Victoria. Cue rumble, although in my alcoholic haze I seem to have missed out the segment where Bart forces Danny into a series of pitfights to the death. If you want a full recap, either find a reviewer who isn’t drunk (ha! good luck!) or better yet, see the film.
And see this film you should. Perhaps not on the basis that it’s a fantastic chop sockey outing, because despite some of the crispest, nicely choreographed and occasionally brutal fight scenes seen in recent years (for a Western effort, not a patch on Ong Bak though), there’s just not enough of them to give it an all out recommendation to the pure kung fu crowd. While the dramatic elements aren’t bad, if it’s emotive English language drama you’re after there’s precious little reason to watch Jet Li attempt it. Not to dismiss what’s a sympathetic performance, certainly the best actual acting Li’s ever done in a Western flick by a country mile, but it’s not really why we’d watch a Jet Li film. No, you should see this because it’s a film with Jet Li in it that isn’t a Jet Li film.
Now we get into the portion of the review that requires delicate explanation, but damned if I’m in a delicate kind of mood at the moment. Tomorrow morning maybe, but not now. This film, I fear is doomed forever to be an oddity amongst Li’s career. With the prevailing martial art wind Eastwards being towards the wushu outings it’s not had a huge impact in his homelands, and it’s proving too darn oddball to push as any sort of traditional Jet Li, or even chop sockey, outing Westernwise. It’s perhaps the first film in a good long while, definitely amongst the Western backed outings, where having Jet Li in it isn’t the point of the film, just a plus point of it. There’d be no reason for, say, The One to exist if Jet Li wasn’t starring in it, but Unleashed could work just as well as it does without Li, albeit probably with less impressive fight scenes. Li is still the finest martial artist outputting to celluloid at the present time, after all. No, the reasons you wind up caring about Danny isn’t his fighting ability (a rarity amongst most Li films, if we’re being brutally honest), it’s because of his relationship with Victoria; because of the instant trust Sam has him; and because Bart’s an utter git to him. Compared to a great many Jet Li films where the only reason for really liking his character is that he staves people’s heads in with his own flawless style, this is a huge leap forward into the unknown.
It almost works as well, but it borrows a little too heavily from the HK Action Flick Big Book of Contrived Nonsense despite the efforts of all involved. Freeman is hardly being pushed into unfamiliar territory but he’s still bringing his A game to the table, as he always does to all but the most hopeless of lost causes. For all Hoskins is critically slammed for hamming things up, as anyone who’s really paying attention will note all he’s doing is shouting, while playing the kind of man who’s quite likely to shout quite a lot. The fact that he’s using a broad cockney accent to do this isn’t really hamming it up as it is an accident of geography. Nonetheless he does shout very well, which is something to be applauded, not derided. Kerry Condon has an innocent charm that reflects Li’s own charisma, which is another aspect of his character that is rarely given much credence. It’s no real fault of the actors that the story is just a little to the wrong side of silly for Besson’s story to truly have the emotional impact that the physical impact Li bring to the table warrants.
Louis Leterrier deserves some credit, after all he’s seemingly the only director in the western world who can shoot a Jet Li fight scene, impressive for such an inexperienced director (his first solo directorial outing, despite the co-credit on The Transporter. Hell, I’m almost looking forward to The Transporter 2 now). Sadly it’s altogether too abstract a film to gain mass market acceptance, and it’s not quite good enough to truly surpass the contrived set up for the story. It’s not going to be the best film you’ll ever see, but it’s certainly enough of a talking point on it’s own merits to warrant a viewing. I’ve a feeling that a few years down the road this will become something of a cult classic, certainly as far as Jet Li aficionados go. It’s certainly the bravest, most individual thing he’s done in a long time, even if it’s not necessarily his best.