Unleashed (2005) / Action-Thriller
aka Danny the Dog

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, language and some sexuality
Running Time: 103 min.

Cast: Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Review published May 17, 2005

If only movie theaters allowed us to hook up our Xbox controllers and button mash during the fight scenes for a more realistic interactive experience than just sitting and watching this demo.  Jet Li (Cradle to the Grave, Hero) stars in the second English-language film written for him by French action auteur Luc Besson (The Transporter, Wasabi), and while the results are decidedly better than Kiss of the Dragon¸ the artificial storyline and wafer-thin characterizations put this in the category of a great action movie combined with bad drama.   Of course, it’s hard to go wrong in the action department when you have Yuen Woo-ping as the choreographer, and while this is much more subdued than futuristic Matrix films or the high-flying wuxia style of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the grittiness of the situations gives the action an extra visceral jolt when played out in the real world of today. 

Jet Li plays Danny the Dog, a lifetime slave who from day one of his "ownership" was taught to be a fighter and killer for his gangster boss, Uncle Bart (Hoskins, Beyond the Sea).  Never receiving a formal education, Danny still has the mind of a child, and the only thing that keeps him from being lethal at all times is the collar he wears to keep him at peace.  Bart has been using him to muscle protection money out of local businesses, but soon he discovers even bigger funds can be had if he enters Danny in lethal underground club fighting, where men fight to the death for a sizeable sum.  Bart's plans go awry when Danny escapes him, and soon Danny is adopted by a blind musician (Freeman, Million Dollar Baby) and his precocious adopted daughter (Condon), and together they form a strange family bond that soothes the savage beast within Danny. 

Other than the aforementioned action scenes, if there is one other thing that Unleashed has going for it, it is in the very sympathetic portrayal of Danny by Jet Li.  Jet may not be known for his acting, as the way he delivers a kick will always be more amazing than the way he delivers a line of dialogue, but still, he does make Danny a very believable grown man with the mind of a young boy and disposition of an attack dog.  This sympathy does pay off in the later action scenes, where Danny must reluctantly enter the arena in a kill-or-be-killed showdown, as we feel sickened watching him take a pummeling without fighting back and hope that he can escape alive. 

It almost works, if only the script weren’t so firmly set in fantasyland.  The whole premise of the “Mortal Kombat” style arenas in underground clubs where gladiators fight to the death is hard enough to swallow, and then you have to add on the story of a boy who grows up as a dog in order to be in the right frame of mind to kill on command.  As if these things weren’t silly enough, the most artificial aspects of the story comes when Danny is out in the “real world” mingling among supposedly real people.  These people happen to be a kindly blind musician and a spunky young girl with a heart of gold, seemingly lifted right out of the pages of some half-baked comic book.  The dialogue between the characters is trite, never really letting you believe that these could actually be people you’d ever think to meet outside of a bad movie, and when the great Morgan Freeman can’t deliver a line in a way that convinces me, you know there must be something wrong with the writing.

Unleashed is a kick-ass action flick stuck in the middle of a junk movie, and your mileage will certainly vary as to how much you’re willing to go with the wooden dialogue and heavily overblown plot for the sake of watching Jet Li do his thing.  Based almost strictly on Jet Li’s performance, both in and out of the fighting arena, I wish I could give this one a recommendation, but ultimately, better writing is the necessary ingredient to make this energetic crock fly.  I would say Unleashed would make a better video game than a movie if only it didn’t seem so readily apparent that the shallowest of video games inspired it. 

Qwipster's rating:

©2005 Vince Leo