Bart (Bob Hoskins) has the right idea for making debtors pay up: take a young boy, eradicate any evidence of his family, raise him like a animal, even going so far as to slap a collar on him (and training him in martial arts somewhere along the way), and take him around with you on your collection rounds to administer righteous beat-downs on those who are reluctant to cough it up. Sure, there are idiots all over with actual, poorly-trained attack dogs, but Bart has a fricking human pit bull.
The story in “Unleashed” is simplicity itself. I already told you the setup: Bart uses Danny (Jet Li) as muscle for his numbers/extortion/loan racket (it’s never really explained). He also has a side business going using Danny in the underground gladiator circuit. Danny knows nothing of his past, lives in a cage, and wears rags. When his collar is on, he’s as docile as a lamb, but when it comes off, you best prepare to have the pain brought. It’s an imperfect system (suppose, for example, you can’t get to the collar to remove it?), and leads to some snafus. One such screw up takes place in an antique store, where Danny makes the acquaintance of Sam (Morgan Freeman), the kindly old blind piano tuner (if I only had a nickel for every time I’ve written that phrase). Danny misses his cue to attack, and in the ensuing confusion gets an unexpected opportunity to escape.
The movie downshifts for a while as an injured Danny reconnects with Sam, who nurses him back to health with the help of his teenaged stepdaughter Victoria. Victoria is a piano student, and together the two of them start teaching Danny how to act more like a human and less like a dog, using music to calm his savage breast. Naturally, Bart hasn’t forgotten about his secret weapon, and when he finally learns of Danny’s whereabouts, the stage is set for a finale that will no doubt feature a rousing fiesta of a*s-kickage.
“Unleashed” is goofy, there’s no doubt about that, but while the film’s second act will bore many martial arts fans, it finally gives Li a chance to do something besides fix the bad guys with his steely-eyed gaze. What’s that called again? Oh, yeah…acting (not that Li is ever going to challenge Freeman or award nominations). There’s nothing original about the whole redemption angle, but it’s a nice change for Li, and makes “Unleashed” less a martial arts movie and more a drama that just happens to include guys getting their kneecaps broken.
Fortunately, the kneecap-breaking scenes are handled by Yuen Wo Ping, who also choreographed “Once Upon a Time in China,” “Fist of Legend,” and a little film you may have heard of called “The Matrix.” I wasn’t a big fan of the wire work here, but the early beat-down scenes are top notch. And one later sequence, between Danny and some mysterious Hare Krishna dude inside a 2’ x 5’ bathroom stall, will leave you physically exhausted.
Li has never enjoyed the domestic success of martial arts contemporary Jackie Chan, who has always seemed more accessible to audiences (and allows himself to be humiliated in Brett Ratner movies). Chan’s appeal is that of a loveable rogue who just happens to be able to whip your a*s with a ladder. Li, on the other hand, rarely cracks a smile before shattering your pelvis. Li’s newfound grin won’t put “Unleashed” on anyone’s top 10 list, but it amounts to a pretty satisfying diversion.
“Unleashed” is written by Luc Besson and directed by Louis Leterrier (a guy with “terrier” in his name directing a movie about a human dog…magnifique). This isn’t really important except in illustrating that the French obviously don’t have to worry about copycat lawsuits. In America, some guardian of the public good would be leaping up to warn us that “the children” across the country were in danger of being abducted by gangsters who want to train their own custom battle orphans.