Action Drama Thriller
Trivia The role of Bart was originally written for Albert Finney, who dropped out to do Big Fish. Other actors who were offered the role but turned it down were Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, and Brian Cox.
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Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog) (2005)
14th Nov 05
Raised as a trained killer by criminal Bart (Hoskins), Danny the Dog (Li) gets another leash of life when taken in by blind piano tuner Sam (Freeman).
If you've ever wondered whether Jet Li can act as well he kicks the Bejesus out of his many screen opponents, you need to see the Luc Besson-penned Unleashed. It takes a fantastically simple premise and rolls it up into a well-acted, heartfelt tale that should leave anyone who enjoys a decent drama and kung fu hi jinks feeling more than fulfilled. If wall-to-wall action is what you're in the mood for however, you may want to steer clear of this one and watch something like Born to Fight or Ong Bak instead. Alternatively, you could just watch the beginning and the end of Unleashed; the fight action here is kinetic, hard-hitting and intense (with choreography by The Matrix man Master Yuen Wo Ping), making these scenes essential viewing for kung fu fans, even if they get bored (or nauseous) with everything in between.
Li plays Danny, a trained killing machine used by Bart (Bob Hoskins), a small-time Godfather, to pulverise anyone who doesn't pay up on time. Having 'found' orphaned Danny at an early age, Bart has devised a system whereby he sets his 'dog' on his attackers by removing Danny's collar. If the collar is on Danny's neck, he's harmless. Without it, not so harmless. You get the picture. Danny's working conditions suck, however. He's kept in an underground cage. He eats food with his fingers straight from the can. He still reads children's books, having never had the chance to further his development since he was ten years old. A prisoner. A caged animal.
When an attempt on Bart's life leaves Danny with a chance of escape, he is taken in by blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). Slowly acclimatising to a radically contrasting lifestyle under these new, normal conditions, Danny enrols on a crash course of life, learning about humanity - something he had never known while under the control of his cruel 'uncle'. He's a quick learner. He develops a love for music, uncovers the tragic truth about his mother, and how he came to be Bart's killer dog. Soon however, his previous life of violence catches up with him, forcing him to don the collar again.
It's a real treat to see a film that is only, arguably, a 'kung' film. Or a 'fu' film. It hasn't quite enough fighting to make it a conventional martial arts feature - there's something else here, too. It's Danny's story – the story of his troubled life, from being a caged animal to growing as a docile man finding a new life, dreaming of being a pianist. Danny's story does tend to veer toward the overly sentimental and shmaltzy but ultimately this interesting experiment, featuring some truly memorable characters, comes off successfully thanks to a stellar cast, tight direction and a brilliant musical score courtesy of Massive Attack.
Li's performance here is exact and flawless; it's so good to see real acting talent from him, even as an English-speaking character. His balance of killing machine and cautious figure of vulnerability is surprisingly spot-on, but it is important to remember that his approach to acting in this context is, wisely, 'less is more' when he's not clobbering bad guys; he's playing a dog and hence adopts a blank, expressionless visage for the most part. Li has worked hard developing this role into what we see in the final product and it shows, having even changed his fighting style to behave like a savage dog - attacking the thugs one-by-one with relentless ferocity.
The ever-reliable Morgan Freeman is good as ever, and allegedly changed his character during pre-production, making Sam blind and hence able to see the child in Danny. As you can imagine, it's the sort of role Morgan Freeman is born to play, and he delivers the goods in his usual, magnetic manner, despite the cheese factor you may smell. Bob Hoskins is the epitome of pint-sized, thuggish menace here, grimacing his way through proceedings like an older, meaner version of Harry Shand in the gritty British gangster thriller The Long Good Friday. For a 62-year-old man, Hoskins really pulls out the stops and doesn't seem to mind getting in the thick of the action. Respect.
Debutant director Louis Leterrier has constructed a slick, polished and unique piece with Unleashed. The choice of Glasgow for a setting is part of this uniqueness and really helps to establish the seedy, bleak criminal underworld inhabited by a rather nasty bunch of characters whom you eagerly await to see being pummelled repeatedly, beyond recognition by Danny the Dog. One thing I didn't get though – if Unleashed is set in Glasgow, where are all the Scottish people?
Unleashed is affecting and moving if you allow yourself to get sucked in by all that cornball schmaltz. It's also flinchingly brutal when it eventually steps back in the ring, making it open to interpretation as to whether it’s either like a badly paced fight film or a really violent drama. It's hard to figure out which, but that's not important. In fact it adds to its charm. With Luc Besson as the scribe, this slower-paced middle section is no accidental lull in the action. It's more of an intentional enterprise to do something different with established theatrical formulae (despite the mawkishness) while the beginning and climax feature enough seriously kick-ass martial arts to blow your mind, demonstrating how Jet Li just gets better and better. See for yourself. Have some tissues at the ready of you're an emotional sort.
Versions Rogue Pictures Region 1 DVD of Unleashed Unrated contains two versions of the film - the theatrical cut as well as the unrated version. The disc features satisfying enough bonus material which do tend to regurgitate the same interview / clip material: 'Serve No Master' (focusing on the fight choreography), 'The Collar Comes Off' (interviews with cast members), an interview with director Louis Leterrier and music videos for Massive Attack and The RZA.