It may have been the psychologist John Watson, or perhaps B.F. Skinner, who argued that if someone were so inclined, they could mold another individual’s personality into whatever they wanted. If such a person took an impressionable infant they could teach it to be anything from a serial killer to the next Shakespeare. In this case, the result is a kung fu master who thinks he is a dog. As unbelievable as it sounds, it is no more far-fetched than, say, a flying DeLorean that can go back in time. If you are willing to buy into this highly unlikely scenario in order to witness some choice kung fu action, “Unleashed” should be right up your alley.
“Unleashed” is the long-awaited Jet Li action flick fans have been craving. In addition to this film, director Louis Leterrier is responsible for 2002’s “The Transporter,” which is of a similar European action flavor. The story and idea are accredited to Luc Besson, who will be remembered for his astounding action drama “The Professional.” Supporting Li in between the roundhouse kicks and head butts are Kerry Condon and Bob Hoskins. Bringing his usual wisdom and dignity to the film is Morgan Freeman. Freeman seems unlikely for such a role, but turns out to be right at home in the film.
In order to attract the action audience, mostly males ages 16 to 35, the story has to be kept simple enough. The movie gets off on the right foot with some dizzying fight scenes that establish what the next two hours are all about. Evil crime boss Bart (Hoskins) uses the terror and fear of his ass-whooping “dog” Danny (Li) to extort money from people. Don’t pay and it’s your ass, simple.
Bart loses track of Danny after the usual double crosses and backstabbing. Danny stumbles upon the kindness of Sam (Freeman), a blind pianist – check the Ray Charles reference. Sam heals Danny’s wounds and befriends the “manimal.”
In the meantime we are introduced to the ghastly looking Victoria (Condon), who is Sam’s stepdaughter. This is where the film tries to sell you on something it is not. The film spends 40 minutes attempting to weave a strained family/love story around the three characters. As if that wasn’t enough, it delves into Danny’s traumatic childhood in order to explain his criminal life. It feels as though the film interjects this crippled story line in an attempt to provide a reason for the two hours of fighting, which to some fans is the whole point of the film.
Later on, one of Bart’s thugs discovers Danny and his new life at the grocery store, of all places. Danny is taken back to Bart, who puts him in a battle royal against six other fighters. This particular brawl employs one too many trapeze shots. The improbability of the scene actually detracts from Jet Li’s skill as an action star. Nonetheless, the sequence is action-packed and exhilarating.
At that point, one of those earlier story lines finally pays off. When Bart reveals that he is responsible for the brutal murder of Danny’s mother, it motivates Danny to rise up and escape his cruel master. Bart follows in pursuit and we are set for the final showdown. The finale is a 15-minute, all-out clash through the apartment building where Sam and Victoria live. In collaboration with master fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, Li is incredible in his speed and true mastery of the fighting arts. This brutal succession is the filet mignon of the whole movie. Predictably, the movie’s happy ending has the good guys beating the bad guys, and everyone leaves happy.
“Unleashed” is your perfect popcorn action movie. It does not make you think that hard, and fulfills your expectations of the genre. There is enough humor to keep you chuckling during the quiet minutes of fighting downtime. The little love story between Victoria and Danny could satisfy female audience members. Plotlines are kept simple and there are no larger messages that are thrown in your face. If you can get past the utterly laughable concept, you’re in for a good time. Jet Li may not have the stunts of Jackie or the legend of Bruce, but he does kick ass and kick it well!