Unleashed is a bit of a dichotomy in the fight film genre. It is bone crunchingly brutal, yet with astonishing moments of sweetness. Or, maybe, it is astonishingly sweet, yet with bone crunching moments of brutality.
Regardless, like any good Daoist, it tries extremely hard to find that right balance between the two – sometimes admirably, sometimes clumsily.
Jet Li plays Danny, a man that has been raised since childhood to be a trained pit-bull enforcer for his master Bart, played by Bob Hoskins. Bart keeps a collar on Danny, but when the collar is removed Danny becomes a ferocious, mindless killer, tearing through anyone Bart tells him to. Danny has no memory of his family and has only known abuse, but when he comes across a piano and the gentle kindness of Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind Piano Tuner, something stirs deep inside of him.
Jet Li’s international career has been inconsistent to say the least. The movies he has made for the US market have been clichéd and pandering, having little to do with the kinds of movies that brought him to prominence in the first place. Truly, the majority of his US made films could have featured most any other action star without having to noticeably change the script much.
Unleashed is a definite step in the right direction. He’s not a burn out cop, or a professional hit man with a score to settle. He is a lost soul who has found a taste of happiness and wants to be worthy of it and he has to fight his way out of the only life he can remember up to that point in order to find that peace.
The movie takes great advantage of his charisma as a person and his limitations as an actor. When he smiles the whole mood of the scene changes and takes on deeper resonance. Morgan Freeman is his usual stolid self and brings out the best in Jet Li’s acting ability giving him someone real and strong to react to. Bob Hoskins is impressively believable as the kind of man that would take a child and raise him like you would a fighting beast and his interplay with Jet as Danny is frustratingly and appropriately disconcerting.
The fights, choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping (fight choreographer of the Matrix films, Kung Fu Hustle and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), bring a bruising and desperate sensibility to the film. They are not pretty and there is nothing romantic about them whatsoever. These contrasted with the scenes of the soft, sweet life that he starts to build with Sam and Victoria (Kerry Condon), Sam’s step-daughter, really set up a film that is valiantly struggling to overcome the artificial limitations that have been set for the genre.
The fact that it is not completely successful in overcoming these limitations is not necessarily a bad thing. The problems lie in scenes, most particularly between Danny and Victoria, where the film makers (writer/producer Luc Besson who is best known for Fifth Element and La Femme Nikita and director Louis Letterier who directed The Transporter for Besson) seem to be trying too hard to highlight the contrasts of Danny’s two lives, striving to find that almost impossible balance between the sweet and the sour, the yin and the yang, and just missing.
Unleashed, though not a complete success, is still a noble effort and a positive artistic move forward for Li. It gives him the chance to reestablish a more durable screen persona, rather than showing up and going through the motions in generic movies of much less substance, and sets him up for higher audience expectations moving into the future.