LI GETS LOOSE
Fortunately for Jet Li his mainstream American fan base is largely intact, either because A) his loyalists are forgiving people or B) they never saw the abominably bad "Cradle 2 the Grave." In "Unleashed" the wires and implausible CGI take a back seat to the more entertaining implausible martial arts, where the actors are light and are sent soaring through the air with a swift kick to the stomach.
There are two main components to "Unleashed": the body-count Li's fans anticipate, and the human story about family and love. Both components carry their own weight on the scale with perhaps slightly more emphasis on the latter.
The story is pure B-grade material but intriguing none the least. Li plays Danny the Dog, a human fighting machine raised from childhood by a ruthless Glasgow gang lord named Bart (Bob Hoskins). Treated like a dog who eats out of a can and sleeps in a cage, Danny has no recollection of his past and is only obligated to do one thing: kill on demand.
While bound to his collar Danny is a submissive servant, bossed around by Bart's cronies and wouldn't hurt a fly unless told to do so. But when the collar is removed and an order is given to kill he's unstoppable, taking out everyone in his path not letting up until he's the only one left standing.
In the opening scenes we see Danny at work. Punching, kicking, flipping, spinning, and so on. Through a gritty lens, Pierre Morel's camera shows all the action with a minimum of cuts and scene-splicing. Good to know not every modern action film requires Ritalin to allow audiences to keep up, as here scenes last longer than a few seconds and demonstrate the advanced level of choreography at work.
While on route to a "hit" a car accident sends Danny and his master tumbling into the shattered-glass covered street. Able to escape, he finds refuge in the home of Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind black piano-tuner too innocent and accommodating to be a real person. The sounds of Sam's piano reminds Danny of something, only he's not quite sure yet what it is.
Sam lives with his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) in a nice European apartment temporarily on hiatus from the United States so 18-year-old Victoria can go to a specialized school. They embrace Danny immediately and are patient enough to give him time to adapt to his new home, and ignore the collar around his neck until they feel it is appropriate to go to the next step.
Everything is overwhelming at first for Danny. He's never slept in a bed before, never had dinner at the table and was never treated with such warmth. He still gets jumpy as any dog would recovering from a life of abuse, but quickly takes to the hospitality at his disposal.
Bart will find Danny again, and before the movie ends his adopted family will be in harm's way, pitting Danny the Dog into a difficult corner. He could continue working for Bart, a life he wants to put behind him, or risk giving away the location of Sam's apartment which would surely be visited if Bart has to chase him down.
The martial arts, which may not be in enough supply for the purest Li fans, has been choreographed by Yeun Wo-ping, giving Li a stage to demonstrate his true talent without blue screens and special effects. And because the fighting is hardly interrupted we can enjoy everything taking place, unlike the XXXs and other steroid-induced films that have us too preoccupied anticipating the next explosion to appreciate the simple choreography that makes action movies fun to watch.
The climax is a little shaky but entertaining for as long as there are people fighting. It gets interrupted by characters I wished would have stayed quiet for awhile, but what we get is enjoyable enough to recommend. More modern martial arts films need to be like "Unleashed," where choreography supersedes special effects.