a critiQal film review Unleashed (2005)

Plot: Danny (Li) hurts people. As soon as Uncle Bob (Hoskins) unlocks his collar, Danny causes pain. After an ambush leaves him alone, Danny is taken in by blind piano tuner Sam (Freeman) and his daughter Victoria (Condon), who help him realize there is more to life than pain. But, before he can really begin his life anew, he has to deal with a few problems from his old life.

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  • ...transcends the normal martial arts flick by providing a story with surprising depth and heart.

I’ve been a big Jet Li fan since I first saw him in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998). Since then, he’s really made a name for himself in martial arts action films in the US, starring in films like Kiss of the Dragon (2001), Romeo Must Die (2000) and The One, and just seems to keep getting better and better each film.

So when I saw the previews for Unleashed, I knew it was going to be something I checked out when it hit DVD. Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people around me, as Blockbuster® hasn’t been able to keep the film on the shelf since it’s release. Luckily, they had just gotten a copy back, which I immediately snatched up. So, would the wait be worth it, or would Unleashed be one Jet Li film that I should have let them put back on the shelf?

Jet Li is always amazing in fight sequences, and has turned in some rather memorable performances in some of the other films he’s been in, but it’s always been the same type of character. He slowly adds a bit more to the character each film, but he’s taking his time, and it’s been interesting to watch him evolve through each film. With Unleashed, the viewer gets to watch that evolution right in the film, as he goes from killing machine to family man within the space of less than 2 hours. It’s a pretty believable transformation, and almost mimics his characters in US films.

At first, he was little more than just a bad guy (Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)), but his character has since evolved into more of a leading man role. While he’s known for his moves, his acting has continued to keep improving throughout each film as well, and will hopefully continue to do so as his career continues.

Morgan Freeman (looking a little bit like Ray Charles) turns in another decent performance in Unleashed, which is par for the course when it comes to him. His portrayal of a blind man (a first for him, I believe) is convincing, yet he never stoops to trying to portray the man as having any sort of disability, as actors often do. He’s confident and caring, and the perfect person to help Jet Li’s character Danny make sense of this new world he’s thrust into. Bob Hoskins and Kerry Condon turn in good supporting performances as well, convincingly portraying Danny’s “owner” and Freeman’s adopted daughter, respectively.

The story, written by Luc Besson (director of La Femme Nikita (1991), The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997), among others), is a great twist on the average martial arts film. Unleashed has a distinctive human element in it, and all of the fights are an integral part of the storyline, helping to showcase the differences in Danny’s life as new doors are suddenly opened for him by Sam and his daughter. This in itself is a radical change from the average martial arts film, as the story is usually there just to provide a connection between the fights. Luc Besson has taken the average martial arts film to another level, focusing his story (as he tends to do) on the human element first and the action second.

The martial arts sequences in Unleashed, as is typical of any Jet Li film, are very impressive. Jet Li in this film can seemingly take on anyone, anywhere – and win. Whether it’s a group of killers in a death match ring, or a martial arts master in the closed confines of a toilet stall, he takes on any comers.

As usual, his martial arts directors are the best in the business. In this case it’s Yuen Wo Ping, who has directed the fight scenes for such film as The Matrix (1999), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004). He does his best to create the most exciting action sequences he can. Couple that with Jet Li’s quick moves, and it’s a recipe for excitement, martial arts style.

Unleashed, while at it’s heart a martial arts picture, goes above and beyond the norm by creating a story with real humanity that will keep you tuned in to the end. It’s great to watch Danny as he begins to experience the joys of life (like eating ice cream for the first time) – especially since you know that his past will eventually rear it’s ugly head. It makes you appreciate each moment of his wonder right along with Danny.

If you’re looking for just a kick-butt, no plot action flick, then Unleashed isn’t for you. Whether you’re a fan of martial arts or you’ve never even seen one, this is the film for you. It’s got a great story behind it for non-martial arts fans, and it’s action sequences will satisfy even the hard core martial arts fans. Be sure to rent a copy yourself – if you can find it.

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