Don’t make Jet Li angry. You won’t like Jet Li when he’s angry.
Danny (Jet Li) is a man-child who has been treated, raised, and brought up as a dog by his owner, Bart (Bob Hoskins). Bart has had Danny in his care since he was a little boy, which means that everything Bart tells Danny to do, he does, without any back-talk or adversity. But mostly what Bart tells and has Danny do, is to kill people whenever he needs some people to wiped-out, whether for money, or just for the heck of it. And to ensure that Danny stays in line, Bart’s installed this collar onto Danny’s neck that, whenever it’s on, means that Danny will stay relaxed and calm, but whenever it comes off, it means that it’s time for Danny to start killing anyone in his sight. Obviously, this is no way for a human being to live, which Danny sort of knows, which is why when he gets a chance to run away from Bart and the rest of his mob, he ends up in the arms of Sam (Morgan Freeman), an older, but kind blind man who wants to teach Danny the ways about the real world around him and how to live like any other normal person would. But too often does it become clear that Danny’s past will come back to hunt him, as well as Sam.
Jet Li is, in no way, an actor to take very seriously. Sure, he kicks a lot of butt, flies around, and generally seems to be the kind of cat you don’t want to mess with in everything he shows up in, but to be honest, his acting-skills are, for the most part, weak. Then again, that’s fine because it’s not as if you call up Jet Li to deliver your insightful, heartwarming tale about love and loss. No, instead, you call him up to participate in your live wire, fun, exciting, and booty-kicking kung-fu film where he may have to drop the occasional line of dialogue here or there, but really, you, nor the movie, are fully depending on him for that reason and that reason alone.
In a way, though, Unleashed sort of changes that.
While Li doesn’t have to do much of any heavy-lifting with his character of Danny here, the movie still depends on his presence a bit to give us this sad and frightened little creature of a man who, at the same time, can still kill each and every person in a room if he was demanded to. There’s plenty of the movie that focuses in on his background and his relationship with his owner-of-sorts, Bart, but Li himself still seems capable enough of making us believe in this character, even if his origins seem a little silly and far-fetched.
Does it really matter if he still trips up on his English a bit? Nope, not really. All that matters is that we get to see this Danny character as, well, a human being. Not just because a good portion of the movie is focusing on him and his constant interactions with the world around him, as well as other people, but because it adds a certain level of tension and emotion to the fighting sequences that, as you could predict with this being a Li movie, to transpire. But don’t be fooled – just because they’re fighting sequences in a Jet Li movie, means that they’re mindless and crazy. Okay, yeah, they’re definitely crazy, but there’s also that feeling surrounding these fighting sequences that makes us feel sad for Danny, the character, because we know he doesn’t want to fight, or kill anyone, but it’s the only thing he knows to do.
In a way, Unleashed is a very corny movie.
However, it’s also a very fun one that, when it chooses to, takes some time away from all of the bloody, chaotic violence to develop its characters, as thin as they may be. This is to say that, yes, Li does a serviceable job here as Danny, but it also helps that he has the likes of Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon, and Bob Hoskins surrounding him, always there to lend a helping hand to a scene if one calls for it. Freeman’s older, wiser character who seems to genuinely have a good heart, fits in well with the rest of the gritty atmosphere of the movie; Kerry Condon’s teenager character may be overly perky, but she’s never really annoying and instead, feels much more like an actual kid who is just happy to have a person to talk to; and Bob Hoskins, as usual, is mean, vicious and constantly chewing up the scenery. However, it’s the right kind of scenery-chewing where you know how far, is “too far”, and he also knows just how willing he’s able to sink deep into his character, without ever losing his sense of control.
And that’s basically all you have it with Unleashed: Four people, one story. Because of that, the movie can tend to feel a lot shorter than it actually is (100 minutes, to be exact), but personally, I have no problem with that. I’ll take a fun, but thoughtful movie any time of the week that’s neither too long, or too short. Sometimes, when something is just slap dab in the middle and just right, then that’s okay with me. The movie itself may think it’s something more meaningful and life-changing than just a fun kung-fu movie starring Jet Li, but at the end of the day, it’s the fighting sequences and the high-flying Li himself who are probably the most memorable, whether director Louis Leterrier or writer Luc Besson would like to admit or not.
Oh, and the late, great Bob Hoskins, too. Can’t forget about that mean S.O.B.
Consensus: A bit deeper than most Jet Li vehicles, Unleashed finds the famous kung-fu star digging deeper into his acting persona, to make for a far more entertaining action-thriller.
7 / 10