“Unleashed” (2005)

unleashedWhat a great movie. It looked pretty dark from the previews so that’s why I rented it, as usually martial art films are pretty repetitious. When I saw in the openning credits that it was written by Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”, amongst other great movies) I had a feeling this would be good.

When I read some of the reviews on NetFlix I was kind of surprised … and disappointed. A lot of viewers seemed to want constant fight scenes or a different kind of character acting. Go figure … no accounting for taste.

OK, rather than retype the basic plot, here’s the description from NetFlix:

Raised as a slave, Danny (Jet Li) is like an animal who knows nothing but fighting for survival. In fact, his “master,” Bart (Bob Hoskins), thinks of him as a pet and goes as far as leashing him with a collar. Together, they make money in fight clubs, where Danny’s the main contender. When Bart dies unexpectedly, Danny is left bereft, trusting no one, until he meets a piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) who uses music to free Danny’s long-buried heart.

Lets start with the fight scenes. These are more brutal than anything I’ve seen in a while. Li’s character has been trained and raised to injure or kill on command. His technique is merciless and almost mechanical in the way he destroys other people. If you’re used to the more embellished style of movie fights – with lots of eyebrow raises and posturing – this movie’s action scenes won’t be your cup of tea. But the speed and choreography are staggering.

Li’s character is always outnumbered badly yet he is indifferent to it. It is all he knows. Again, none of the Hollywood bravura here. It’s what he does. And it’s like a light switch. When the collar comes off he goes from stoic and docile to a blur.

Bob Hoskins does a good job as the bad crime boss, who “raised” Li to be what he is. He is totally evil. When direct violence doesn’t work, he uses his natural charm to lure people close and then lowers the boom. He is a man without remorse, conscience, or scruples; and Hoskins does as good a job as I’ve seen in that kind of role. Now, here again, it’s a European-made and -set film. So if you’re more used to the “Gangsta” style of crime-boss figures, Hoskins will seem a bit dry.

Freeman plays the benevolent blind man who helps Li find himself. This was the only part of the movie that was somewhat contrived. But Freeman has such a relaxed air to him it doesn’t mar the film.

Li as an actor does very well. I don’t know why some reviewers griped. Either they flet he did too much or too little or was as good as they’d expect for an action star. Geezuz. I thought he did a great job acting as a boy trapped in that world. Given the magnetism he actually has in person (as seen on interviews) he did a very good job playing down his own personality.

The story is pretty good. Some felt it not believable, but I think that’s more an American view. People can be made to do almost anything under the right circumstances. The connection to music in Danny’s life is well done and more or less keeps the climax of the story hidden until close to the end. They make a few jumps in making the final connection which could have been better explained, but all in all not bad.

The production values are what you’d expect from a film which Besson was involved with. Every secondary character has their own characteristics. The camera work is great. The whole movie flows well and looks fabulous.

If you’re looking for a very dark and dangerous action movie, this is worth looking at. It’s not like Li’s other work, so don’t go in expecting that.