Even though Luc Besson doesn’t direct films too much anymore, his screenwriting contributions are welcomed, especially for “Unleashed.” We are a long way from the action films of old, where characters were equally as important as the explosions or fight scenes, but with this film, Besson was just as concerned with story and characters as he was with the fighting. In these dark days of lazy filmmaking, or computer-generated effect-filled filmmaking as the industry likes to call it, it’s nice to return to the days of old when real cars flipped over and real people get tossed out of windows. With the exception of a few martial arts epics (Hero and Ong-Bak), and even the Bourne series, the action genre almost seemed un-revivable, thanks to a certain Bruckheimer. “Unleashed,” while not all together perfect, is a nice return.
The story isn’t that incredibly original either, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Plucked at an early age and trained to become a vicious killing machine whenever his leash is taken off, Danny (Li) never learned anything else. And killing machine is the perfect way to describe him. As soon as the leash is off, his pupils expand, and he has no problem destroying anyone in his way. The film opens with Danny taking on about 7 or 8 guys with an unflinching fury. He barely takes a hit and when he does, it doesn’t seem to trouble him. As soon as Uncle Bart (played with greatness by Hoskins), his malevolent master, puts the leash back on, Danny goes back to normal like nothing happened.
Finally, after a freak and fatal car accident (again, compliments to the filmmakers for using a real car), Danny escapes the clutches of his uncle and finds his way to a blind piano man (Freeman rehashing his Million Dollar Baby role with complete blindness) and he and his stepdaughter take him in as one of their own. Here, he learns everything he never even dreamed about. Cooking, music, ice cream, and the feeling of having a loving and caring family, which aren’t exactly the kind of stuff you are exposed to if were raised like a dog and housed in a cage for some reason or another.
In the early stages of production, this film was originally titled “Danny the Dog.” For obvious marketing purposes, it was changed to “Unleashed”, but after seeing the final product, the original title would have worked so much better. The film actually focuses more on Danny’s transformation from dog to human being, than it does on anything else. Thankfully, the change is an interesting one, including some of the normal clichés, but leaving out the hideous ones. Just when you think Danny and the stepdaughter are about to have a romantic encounter, the mood changes and the audience is spared.
The fight scenes were choreographed by Woo-ping, so you should know what to expect. The CG is kept to a minimum, and while there is wirework, it too is kept to a minimum. An overuse of editing doesn’t ruin the fight sequences either. Leterrier shot the scenes well and put them together nicely so you can actually see what is going on without having to guess what it is you are actually looking at (like the hectic cutting that kind of ruined Bourne Supremacy). “Unleashed” actually looks like a Guy Ritchie movie (Swept Away excluded of course). It is crafted together like a British gangster film – gritty, moody and dark.
It’s easy to label “Unleashed” as just another mindless summer action film. At its core, however, it has too much going to fall into that category. The last time Besson and Li worked together they made a mediocre, yet somewhat enjoyable, film that lacked in story and character development (Kiss of the Dragon). Those two elements are improved greatly here, making “Unleashed” one of the best Sunday Afternoon action flicks since the glory days of Schwarzenegger.