Here’s the scenario: You’re Jet Li, the international action star who has finally become a semi-household name in America, thanks to imported DVDs and various cinematic team-ups with rappers and singers. But in Hong Kong, where you’ve done several movies that don’t depend solely on ass-kicking, you are revered as a talented actor, period. It sure would be nice if Hollywood gave you that kind of recognition … but how to make that happen?
That’s still a moot question. But one definitive way not to make it happen is to take on a script about a man raised to think that he’s a kung-fu-fighting dog, which is exactly what Li has done with Unleashed. The details of how Li’s Danny is raised as a dog remain shrouded in mystery, but what is clear is that his master is a nasty loan shark named Bart (Bob Hoskins), who removes Danny’s dog collar every time he needs him to whup some behind. Danny always obeys, and loud bone-breaking sound effects always follow the brutal beatings choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping (Kung Fu Hustle), here working without wires for once.
So far, so good. The fights rock, and Hoskins is an effective villain. Then tragedy strikes both characters and the film in general. Bart is seemingly killed, and Danny escapes. Having previously demonstrated a love of piano, he approaches kindly blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman, who can play this sort of role in his sleep and appears to be doing so), and the two bond, as Danny learns how to shop for fruit and vegetables, play the piano, and eat ice cream. This goes on for some forty minutes with no action whatsoever. Sam also has an adopted daughter (Kerry Condon), who falls for Danny and teaches him what a kiss is (nothing more, though — the nudity in the film all comes from extras).
Li wants to show that he can really act with this kind of ersatz Tarzan crapola, and indeed, he comes off as a believable man-boy. It simply doesn’t make sense, though — Danny wasn’t raised by dogs but by men, who presumably taught him his fighting skills. Why didn’t he learn how to talk from them? Being around Cockney gangsters (in Scotland, where no one seems to have a Scottish accent) most of his life, you’d think he’d at least say things like “facking wanker!”
Then there’s some more fighting, as some of the old gang finds Danny again, but he’s now a pacifist and doesn’t want to fight, so he only does defensive moves when they throw him into a big gladiator pit full of characters that normally exist only in video games. It’s pretty lame. But there’s more fighting at the end, when the gangsters make yet another comeback. Bart may be puny, but he’s almost as impervious to bullets as Sin City‘s Marv.
The one aspect of the dramatic scenes that’s believable is the performance by Condon, who really seems like an average geeky college student rather than some glamorous actress pretending to be one. This makes her the only character onscreen who rings true to life in any way. Not that hard when your costars are a dog-man and a blind piano tuner who gladly takes in blood-covered martial artists off the street and provides food and shelter for weeks thereafter, but whatever.
It’s hard to imagine that Li really thought Unleashed was his ticket to more serious American roles. The premise is so absurd that one would have to play it slightly tongue-in-cheek for the film to be any fun at all, and director Louis Leterrier (the superior The Transporter) goes way in the opposite direction, expecting us to not only take things seriously but also be moved by the poignancy of it all. Sorry, no. Even if you’re the sort who likes movies about characters learning how to play the piano, and realizing that pianos are like people (not kidding — that’s one of the movie’s messages), the stereo-surround sounds of cracking necks probably won’t add to the movie’s appeal, while action junkies will feel very cheated. A suggestion for those junkies: Unleashed might not be so bad on DVD when you can skip the middle part; the fights, when they happen, are good.