After seeing this dope action flick, Judge David Johnson has decided to release the kung fu savant he keeps in his basement.
Serve no master.
Rain Man meets Kujo in martial arts superstar Jet Li's newest cinematic endeavor. The film marks a dramatic departure from the kinds of stuff Li (Hero) has been doing in America since Lethal Weapon 4 imported him from the shores of Asian cinema—never has he been forced to do the kind of acting he's had to do, his costars are top-shelf, and the brutal, realistic action is far from the hyper-stylized fisticuffs American audiences have grown accustomed to. Does the experiment work?
Facts of the Case
Danny (Li) lives the life of a dog. Raised from a young age as a pure violence-making machine, Danny does the will of Bart (Bob Hoskins, Hook), a vicious, immoral small-time gangster. Bart uses Danny to squeeze debtors for cash they've loaned him; if they refuse, he removes Danny's collar, which automatically triggers an orgy of ass-kicking.
After all necessary violence has been dished out, the collar goes back on, and Danny is thrown into his cage, where he greedily eats his food out of cans with his fingers, stares at children's books, and clings to fragments of his childhood, his only lifeline to humanity.
But Danny's life is drastically altered when one of Bart's enemies retaliates through attempted vehicular homicide. Just barely making it out of the car wreckage, Danny stumbles, bleeding, to a nearby piano shop. There, he is found by Sam (Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby) a gentle, blind piano tuner. Sam brings Danny home, where he and his daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) nurse him back to health.
Suddenly surrounded by people who care about him, and newly introduced to aspects of civil society he has never known, Danny the person slowly emerges from his dog-like existence.
But just as he approaches normalcy, Bart reenters his life. Danny's past and present lives intersect, and he must decide who he is: is he a servant or is he his own man?
Oh, and to ease the doubts of you action fans out there, this decision will be accompanied by massive amounts of bone trauma.
Here's the long and short of it: Unleashed is far and away the best non-Asian film Jet Li has ever made and is easily one of the finest action flicks released this year. And in my opinion, besides Fist of Legend, Unleashed is Jet Li's best film, period.
It contains amazing fight sequences, a solid story, great atmosphere, an awesome score by Massive Attack, and terrific acting. Plus a guy gets his shoulder broken with a sledgehammer.
Am I being overly orgasmic about this film? I don't know, maybe. What I do know is that this is an action movie that made me feel the buzz of soaking up visceral eye-candy and the satiation that comes after watching a well-executed, substantial story play out on screen. For me, Unleashed was a gratifying confluence of meaningful drama and flat-out killer brouhahas.
The director is Lous Leterrier, who directed the fun, but flimsy The Transporter. Leterrier is a close associate of Luc Besson, the omnipresent French producer/writer/director/caterer/gaffer who has been active in Jet Li's burgeoning Western movie career. Besson wrote and produced Unleashed and the difference between this film and his other joint project with Li, Kiss of the Dragon, which he also wrote and produced, is noteworthy. Where Kiss of the Dragon sported some hugely entertaining fight scenes, the plot holding it all together was slapdash. The fights in Unleashed are equally exciting, but the story is far more potent.
As Leterrier notes in an accompanying interview, Unleashed is the story of the birth of a man. When we first meet Danny he has the maturation of a grade-schooler. Sure he can beat the Hamburger Helper out of anyone he wants, but he also doesn't know how to hold a salad fork.
The film details Danny's transformative process, and the conflict between his two selves—the dog and the man. On one side is Bart, played with magnificent scuzziness by Hoskins, who offers the easy path, the life Danny has always known, which, despite the violence that comes with it, is ironically less painful that the other option: change. Sam and Veronica attempt to tease from Danny his humanity.
Leterrier chooses a clever filming technique to illustrate this conflict. For Danny's scenes of doghood, living with Bart and doing his bidding, he shoots with a filter that gives the film a cold, almost washed-out look. Sequences with Sam and Victoria are noticeably more colorful and "warmer." It's not very subtle, but it is effective.
I want to talk a little about the film's progression. Action hounds may feel a little restless during the middle third as it is almost entirely taken up by quiet moments with Danny and Sam and Victoria; there is almost no action. It takes it time to establish the trio's dynamic.
Thankfully it is exceedingly well-executed, anchored by the best Western work Li has ever done, the typically great Morgan Freeman, and the irresistible charm of Kerry Condon. Far from tacked-on, this section is crucial to the entire movie—Unleashed lives and dies by its quiet moments. Kudos to Leterrier for his patience. But here's the kicker: this character investment greatly augments the action scenes. We now care about the combatants (at least the ones we like) and there's something always at stake, be it the safety of loved ones or Danny's soul.
So about that action. Choreographed by legendary fight coordinator Yeun Wo Ping (the guy is such a player, his credit is the first we see after the fade to black), the battery in Unleashed is simultaneously unnerving and exciting. Danny is a dog, so he fights like one, substituting grace for viciousness. It's hand-to-hand I've never seen on screen before.
There are essentially four action set-pieces in the film: two smaller fights in the beginning, a huge pit-fighting brawl where Danny takes on four roided up cast-offs from a post-apocalyptic B-film, and a full-blown climactic showdown with legions of bad guys and a great, sinister "boss" villain. All of it played to some sweet, throbbing Massive Attack. It's pretty great.
I'm a big Jet Li fan. And as someone who has been fairly disappointed with his recent spat of hip hop kung-fu junk, Unleashed is a blast of healing tonic. It's not just a great Jet Li film. It's a great film.
Unleashed has been unleashed in an unrated cut from Universal, and, personally, I had trouble detecting much change between that and the theatrical R-rated cut. Technically, everything is solid. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is clean and clear; Leterrier's color choices look great, as well as the grimy, seedy noir-like atmosphere of the city. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes are loud and active, and that Massive Attack should push the LFE nicely.
Unfortunately, the extras fail to impress. There's an interview with Leterrier, a behind-the-scenes feature, and a bit on the fight scenes, but they are all short and of the light-weight promotional variety. Two music videos from Massive Attack and RZA cap the offering.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I think it's clear that I dug this movie something fierce. However, I can certainly see if some action fans find it too slow in the middle. If the dramatic stint with Danny, Sam, and Victoria doesn't click with you, boredom is likely. It worked for me, and I'm about as ADD as you can get with action flicks.
Strong performances and awesome action are just a few of the elements of Unleashed that propel it into the upper echelon of recent action movies. It's entertaining and bad-ass, but also tells a coherent and affecting story. A can't miss for Jet Li fans and highly recommended for action aficionados. Heck, even if you're not into on-screen mayhem, I'd recommend you give this disc a spin.
The accused is released while the court nurses its broken femur.
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Scales of Justice
• "Serve No Master" Fight Sequences Feature
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