If you’ve seen any major Action film (or any film targeted at a male audience) over the last year or so, you have probably seen the sublimely-cut trailer for “Unleashed.” One of the year’s best, this particular trailer does a fine job of selling the audience on the idea that this will be a big-budget Jet Li actioner also “punctuated” by some dramatic moments that will allow the martial-arts superstar to display some more subtle acting chops.
It’s somewhat surprising, then, to find that the actual film is instead something of the reverse: Here we have Jet Li acting in a film that is overwhelmingly a character-growth drama punctuated by moments of martial-arts action more familiar to his ouvre. The result is a HUGE depature for Li’s semi-spotty English-language output, and also thus-far the most character-driven actioner of the year so far.
Li is Danny, a childlike “man” raised by a psychotic gangster (Bob Hoskins) from boyhood to be a living-weapon “enforcer” for his criminal activities. Danny is “controlled” by a dog-collar that triggers in him a pavlovian response: When it is on he is docile and harmless, when it comes off he becomes a whirling-dervish of fury driven to literally beat his designated targets to death. The arrangement has been lucrative for the gangster, who schemes to make even more money by turning Danny loose in the world of underground pit-fighting competitions, but an unexpected accident seperates the “dog” from the master. Danny finds comfort with a kindly blind pianist (Morgan Freeman) and his stepdaughter, who take him in and slowly help him recover his stolen humanity. Of course, should Danny’s old life or old impulses ever reemerge…
What is first remarkable about the film is Li’s impressive, nearly-silent performance. Always one of the more nuanced performers on the Hong Kong action scene, Li’s prior turns in films of a “serious” nature were occasionally hampered by the uneasy fusion of the HK cinema’s tendency toward chatterbox heroes with his own perpetually-boyish persona and not-exactly-“rough” speaking style. Well-served though it was for the high-melodrama of “My Father Is A Hero” or Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon A Time in China” cycle, a segue into the realm of serious drama (or it’s HK-action equivalent) was somewhat elusive.
Then came the watershed events of the 1997 Hong Kong handover to China, and the tangentially-related migration of the country’s top stars to the U.S. that wound up dramatically altering the film landscape of both nations for the better: HK had to find, and indeed found, an explosive new crop of homegrown stars; and the U.S. action genre has benefitted profoundly from the Eastern influence and the stars (Li, Jackie Chan, etc.,) that came with it. Confronted with the task of acting in American films despite a marked difficulty with speaking English, Li had to act with minimal dialogue, and the challenge has been as transformative (in my estimation) for his acting as was the similar experience of Clint Eastwood when he slipped off to Europe for the spaghetti westerns: Body-language and facial expressions have become another extension Li’s considerable physical skills (a top martial-arts champ since boyhood,) and he’s become a much finer actor as a result.
Li returned to China to deliver his finest native-language performance ever as an enigmatic, silent (and notably Eastwoodian) “man with no name” lead in “Hero,” and now “Unleashed” gives him the opportunity to do the same for the western roles that affected the change: Danny hardly ever speaks, and when he does it’s with the appropriate tersity of a man functioning in a frightening state of induced developmental-impairment. The character is not precisely a “manchild,” nor retarded or even mentally unwell, he’s much more complex. Li creates with his face and body language a creature that is, disturbingly, exactly what the film describes him as: A human being who’s mind has been warped into that of a pit-bull.
No special effects, makeup or any other trickery are employed to achieve the complete-180 transformation that occurs when Danny’s collar is loosed, and yet the difference between Danny The Man and Danny The Dog (which is, by the way, the film’s much more poetic original title) are tremendous and scary. Come the third act, when Danny finds himself able to call on his abilities without the aid of the collar, even this is a totally different physical performance from the earlier two. In a cinematic world of real justice, where genre-bias was nonexistant, this film would earn Jet Li a Best actor nomination at the end of the year. It almost-certainly won’t happen, since action-acting “isn’t real acting” the same way scifi/fantasy drama “isn’t real drama,” but thus far he doesn’t merely deserve to be nominated… he deserves to win.
Live or die by Li’s role though it may, the film offers up a pair of other noteworthy turns: First by Freeman, who here again shines as a man of deep insight but is just a hint more playful and offbeat than the typical imagining of such a role. But it’s Hoskins who provides the ultimate foil for Li’s Danny. This is a villian of such pure inhuman evil that, when his entrances are marked by flashes of thunder and lightning, it feels wholly appropriate; but Hoskins finds a deep vein of perverse humanity within the part and mines it splendidly: Not to make his character at all sympathetic, though, instead it seems only to make him a more complicated form of monster.
The film’s action is fast, harsh and brutal: Choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping is prized for his balletic hyppereal sequences, but the work he creates with Li here doesn’t look like choreographed martial-artistry; it looks painfully real, exactly what it must look like in real life for someone to be beaten to death by a martial-arts expert. Danny’s fighting-style, too, looks like nothing I’ve ever seen in the kung-fu cinema before (and I’ve seen A LOT of kung-fu movies.) This is some kind of infernal fusion of Bruce Lee’s late-period reactive naturalism and the roll-on-the-ground grapplind of Ultimate Fighting. Most Jet Li fight scenes (most martial arts fight scenes, really) make you want to believe it’s possible to do what he does, “Unleashed” only makes you afraid it’s possible: If there’s a living man who can fight like Danny, I don’t want to meet him.
The action is also very restrained in it’s actual screentime: Brutal scenes of violence open and close the film, and pepper the first and third acts, but fights and shootings vanish entirely from the lengthy middle wherein Danny find his peace. In the end, “Unleashed” winds up with an approach to action about the same as any other drama set in a world where violence exists: Like a gangland epic or a boxing story, the characters engage in combat when it comes but the story doesn’t go looking for it. Let’s be very clear: This is a DRAMA about a martial-artist, not a martial-arts film.
That is, I know, bound to fall on a lot of deaf ears. There are some who won’t ever willingly see a single film where someone throws a punch, who despise the whole of the “martial-arts” canon without ever having explored it or who are incapable of believing that Jet Li might deliver a fine dramatic performance. To them I say, if any “needs” to see any movie, they need to see “Unleashed.”
So, for that matter, does anyone hungering for a good unique film right now. This is the best new film to come out in a few weeks, and it’s in a certain amount of peril of being swallowed up along with the rest of the weekend boxoffice by “Monster-In-Law” (review pending.) But this is the sort of filmmaking that action, drama and the movie landscape in general definately NEED more of, and it deserves our support (and at least a veiwing.)
FINAL RATING: 9/10