Unleashed (aka Danny The Dog) is an usual little number. I saw the trailer and pigeon-holed the movie in my mind, thinking it was going to be a fairly generic martial arts flick, albeit with the bizarre twist of having the main character, Danny (Jet Li) out to seek retribution after being raised as a human dog. Thankfully for once the trailer for Unleashed does not do the movie justice - there is more here than just wire-fu and brutal violence. Transporter director Louis Leterrier gives us an interesting cocktail - a European production (well French mainly) based on a script penned by Luc Besson, set in Glasgow (although you wouldn't know it), featuring Jet Li in one of his most diverse Western acting roles and more than ably backed up by two of Hollywood's best character actors, Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins. This unusual mix gives the whole production a different feel to Jet Li's previous work. Indeed in one of the extra's he himself says that he was looking for something different after years of repetitive action movies, so Besson wrote the script of Danny The Dog specifically with Li in mind. Although Li wanted to do something different, that is in the context of one of the world's best and most successful cinematic martial artists so don't expect him to suddenly start reciting Shakespeare here - this is still predominantly a martial arts action movie, but Li at least gets to act rather than just fight.
So what is Unleashed actually about? Well the movie is a bit of a schizophrenic - the first act is pretty much the movie I expected having watched the trailer. Leterrier watched Long Good Friday before starting work on Unleashed and found the actor he wanted to play the gangster loan shark Bart in Bob Hoskins. He felt that Unleashed would be a kind of sequel to Long Good Friday, albeit twenty years later. As we all know Hoskins can play the tough, psycho gangster boss role with great aplomb and he certainly adds a touch of class to the martial arts genre as usually mob bosses seem more like Pantomime Dames in a lot of these movies. The whole opening third of the movie does feel like Long Good Friday - even down to the way Bart is dressed and the old white Jag XJ6 he drives. We see Bart visiting clients to collect his money and although he has his henchmen, it is the quiet, scruffy oriental by the name of Danny that most of his clients seem worried about. Danny wears a large metal dog collar and when Bart needs a “point” making, he removes the collar which effectively “unleashes” the rage within Danny and allows him to attack whoever might be causing Bart a problem. Bart has raised Danny partly as the son he never had but mostly as a depraved animal who even Bart call's “his dog”. When not killing for Bart he is kept locked up in the cellar of his office. Danny was told that his mother had died when he was a boy and Bart found him in the street, took pity on him when no one else would and he should repay this gratitude by doing his bidding.
The second third of the movie is where the story moves away from the stereotypical action romp and is where Li is given more chance to flex his acting muscles. By chance he meets blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) who takes Danny under his wing when Danny thinks that Bart is dead. Sam and his step daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) look after the deprived Danny and through their kindness, patience and music eventually start to unlock the mental repression that has been put upon Danny for so long. The musical element plays a very important part in Danny's recovery, not least because this helps him to find out more about his mother who was actually a talented pianist. This section of the movie has Danny turn from an almost mute killing machine to a normal young man (and is probably where Li got to experience “something different”). There is almost no violence or fighting in this section of the movie and Freeman plays the “mentor” role so well, it is almost like the character he played in Million Dollar Baby or Shawshank Redemption has joined the story. It is this part of the movie that caught me by surprise and moves this away from being just another martial arts film.
The final third of the movie sees the return of Bart and unfortunately for Danny a return to violence and has the movies most original and exciting fight sequences which you'd come to expect from Master Woo-Ping Yuen, the choreographer behind most of the big martial arts films of recent years including the Matrix trilogy. The movie then picks up pace as Danny finds out more about his past and leads to a climactic ending.
So is this effectively a thinking man's martial arts movie? Well it certainly has more depth than most and the addition of great acting talent can turn even the most bizarre stories into something watchable but I was left wondering if in trying to be original, they'd actually left this movie between two stools. Jet Li is an expert martial artist and the fight sequences in this movie are breathtakingly done but because this isn't a pure martial arts movie, they are surprisingly sparse. On the other hand, although Jet Li gets to do a bit more acting, it's still pretty ropey compared to a “real” actor. I just wonder whether Li fan's are going to like this because it doesn't have enough action in it and fans of gangster drama's might not like it because it has a strange plot about a human dog and his quest for happiness. Still, if like me you come into this expecting little you will actually find this really entertaining.
After a few years of historical martial arts movies it is refreshing to get back to gritty reality, especially to be based in Britain rather than some US ghetto. Hoskins and Freeman elevate this movie into something truly entertaining, yes it has plot holes and not enough of Jet Li doing what he's good at but as an overall package it works well.