4 stars


21st June 2005

Jet Li. He's not had the best of luck since he came to Hollywood to make the big dollar. Lethal Weapon 4? Imagine the shame of allowing yourself to get beaten up by Mad Max when you know you could kick his scrawny ex-alcoholic misogynist fundamentalist ass without even trying. The One? Sub Matrix silliness. Here's a clue - when a sci-fi film involves twins, then it's a fair bet that Jean Claude Van Dammit passed on it. Romeo Must Die? Haven't seen and don't want to. But I can tell it sucks. And we're all wire-fu'd out by now. A once graceful, balletic style has been hijacked by every bozo director who thinks swinging about in slow motion = cool. Even Charlie's Angels had it, for chrissakes.

So when I heard of "Unleashed" I passed. Jet Li AND Bob Hoskins... now there's a nightmare. Imagine Hoskins being slowly hoisted about on wires whilst Jet Li shouts "It's good to talk" and does press-ups. Right? Wrong. Oh so very wrong. Ironically, it's taken two Frenchmen and Glasgow to give Jet Li his first decent American audience potential. Written by Luc Besson and directed by the bloke that made The Transporter (stay with me here though), saddled with a generic title from a committee in Hollywood and set in a pissy rain soaked Scottish city, Unleashed looks, on paper at least, to be a car crash idea. But it works, and how. Besson has taken similar themes he worked through with Leon to create another action-fuelled, pathos-ridden study of isolation, emotional shutdown and surrogate families being formed under pressure. Already it's not your typical Jet Li flick huh?

The plot is simple enough: Danny (Li) has been 'adopted' and abused by his Uncle Bart (Hoskins) to the point where Danny is nothing more than a killing machine, a pet to be set on Bart's money-borrowing clients. Danny is treated like a dog - he's kept in a cage, fed tinned dog food and wears a collar. Bart takes his collar off and he kills people. That's his life. Until one day, awaiting yet another massacre, he meets Sam the blind piano tuner played by Morgan Freeman. Through a series of events, Danny comes to stay with Sam and his stepdaughter, and through this surrogate family he slowly learns to interact with the world, with other people and himself after years of neglect and suffering.

That's the basic plot without spoilers, and it's all you need to know. You should also know, however, that this isn't an action film. Nor is it a martial arts film. Don't go expecting to see kick ass kung fu, because it's not here. There are fights, several in fact. But they're not the usual "I'll fight 32 men one at a time with many kicks and punches and Karate Kid poses". Danny is a man who uses the fastest, simplest way to kill somebody. He doesn't fight to show off his skills, he fights because he wants to go back to his cage. Fast, brutal, non-flashy fights that look like they hurt for once. The opening has him taking on 5 men at once. And it IS at once. Kicking, head butting, biting, face slams into the floor. They don't get up after being punched 5 times in the face and neck, but would you? Or, for example, when Danny is pitted against somebody in a death match for money, there are 3 punches and it's all over, Danny walking away without looking back. He's fighting because he has to, not because it makes an exciting "Neo vs Smith" 10min brawl.

Li is a revelation here. Not only a fierce and brutally athletic fighter (we know this already thanks to other, duller fight fests), but a man dead inside. Changing from an emotionless machine at the start to a frightened and sad man lost in a world he doesn't understand, Li never once lets you think Danny is anything other than a victim, pathetic and confused when he's not attacking people. Bob Hoskins. If you've seen The Long Good Friday, you know what he can do. If you've seen Super Mario Bros & most of his other films, he'll surprise you here. A swaggering, arrogant vile bully of a man. A lowlife greasy shit with a nice line in sleazy hatred. Watching him laughing at Danny's request for a piano makes you want to see him getting beaten. Morgan Freeman turns in another warm, wise performance. You know what to expect with Freeman and he delivers here with his baritone voice and smile. He is a calm centre in Danny's world of hurt.

Luc Besson and director Louis Leterrier (no, really) have created, between them, one of the finest films of 2005 so far. They've taken a stale genre of martial arts and breathed life into it, much as Besson did with Leon and the gangster film. It's about time Jet Li was allowed to do more than punch people in the face, and Unleashed (despite the cringeworthy title) does exactly that. An intelligent, thoughtful art house film that just happens to have bursts of bestial violence to spur the plot along. That, and the best car crash of recent cinema.

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