Jet Li as Danny the Dog
Morgan Freeman as Sam
Bob Hoskins as Bart
Kerry Condon as Victoria
Danny (Jet Li) is a Dog, the world’s most vicious attack dog. Docile and essentially mindless when his collar is on, when his owner Bart (Bob Hoskins) takes it off, Danny flies into action like a human missile, beating anything and anyone in reach to death unless they pay protection money to Bart. Underneath that exterior, however, is a traumatized man that wasn’t always a dog. When a rival tries to get rid of Bart, Danny is left alone in the world for the first time. Sam (Morgan Freeman) a kindly, blind piano tuner takes him in and cares for him. Together with his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) they awaken the man inside Danny to life again – until Bart comes looking for what is his.
Unleashed was written and produced by celebrated French director Luc Besson – his second collaboration with Li – and he is the first filmmaker in the Hollywood phase of Li’s career to really know what to do with him and use him to his best ability as a performer. Li has always been an extremely gifted physical performer, but Besson and director Louis Leterrier have found new acting depths for Li, and the result is enthralling. Leterrier also brings a great deal of visual panache and some Bessonian tricks to the proceedings. He and Woo-Ping have created some incredibly visceral fight scenes, though none of them are at the level of the opening sequence for sheer viciousness and excitement. Everything you need to know about Danny and Bart is told in those first few seconds. None of the other set pieces, as good as they are, ever really match it.
This is by far Jet Li’s best English language film, and one of the finest of his career, not because of the thrillingly choreographed fight sequences – though it has several of those courtesy of master choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping – but because of its well constructed story and Li’s riveting performance, the best he’s ever done. He has hardly any dialogue, but travels through several levels of emotional trauma and recovery using his face and his eyes as his only acting tools. Danny is a dramatically traumatized character, an unfeeling animal that only obeys his trained commands, who over the course of the film becomes a frightened child and eventually an awakened man. When Victoria removes his collar, the moment is filled with apprehension – will Danny attack her, will he not – even Danny doesn’t know what he will do. And it plays out wordlessly on his face.
The other stand out performance is Bob Hoskins. As Uncle Bart, Danny’s “owner” he plumbs new depths of the word vile. The film lags a bit in its second act when he disappears, and springs to life again when he returns to ruin Danny’s life anew. In reality, Bart isn’t much above an animal himself, and he knows it, taking perverse enjoyment from his self-knowledge.
The rest of the cast is serviceable, but unexceptional. Freeman as the sage old man who takes the psychically and physically wounded Danny in has both done better work elsewhere, though his final word on Bart is worth sitting through all of his ‘life lessons’ for. Condon’s introduction as the overly talkative Victoria is just as sweet and charming as it should be without feeling trite. Most of the family scenes feel a bit rushed and often more than a little clichéd, but they work – more on the strength of Li, surprisingly, than anyone else.
It’s not without some minor problems. Danny is portrayed very much as a young man, equivalent to high school student Victoria, though Li himself – in his mid 40s – is obviously too old to fit that particular mold. And there are some occasional inconsistencies, such as towards the end when all of Bart’s goons seem to vanish into thin air just before his final confrontation with Danny. These are just quibbles, however, and don’t do anything to take away from the enjoyment of the film.
Unleashed is an affecting and fun action film, featuring a terrific character and a career best performance from its star.
Unleashed is rated R for strong violent content, language and some sexuality/nudity.