Let the Dog Out: 'Unleashed' Review
Ah, who doesn’t love a good action flick? Superbly choreographed fights, a pulsing soundtrack, brutal fisticuffs, and, if you’re lucky, a decent plotline to support it all (but that last one isn’t quite so necessary). There’s something just viscerally satisfying about it, and I, for one, am completely jazzed to be spending a whole month on martial arts movies. If you don’t like sweaty dudes punching the living daylights out of each other between bestial bellows, now’s the time to tap out, kiddos. Because I get to start off my run with one hell of a bad entry from a legend in the genre: Jet Li’s Unleashed.
Set in the seedy underbelly of Glasgow, this 2005 fighter sees the Wushu master as Danny; a socially-regressed man kept as a real attack dog for the vile loan shark, Bart (Bob Hoskins). Trained from a young age, Danny spent most of his time complacent and collared – but when the brace comes off, and his master gives the command, he flies into a frenzy of brutal blows on any target. Soon he’s leveling up from taking down defaulter’s henchmen to fighting in a high-stakes gladiatorial series; that is, until Bart and his cronies are attacked by a debtor with a serious grudge. Danny escapes with his life and finds shelter with a blind piano tuner, Sam (Morgan Freeman), and his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), who take him in and teach him how to be a human again through gentle words and music lessons. But just as things are looking up for Danny, Bart, and his sidekicks resurface to bring him back into the fighting fold. Will Danny the Dog break free and be his own man, or remain the ferocious weapon of his old master?
This is a film that treads a fine line from its earliest moments, as Unleashed opens on a bleak and overtly violent version of its world. One can immediately feel the oppression in Danny’s life and become invested in the well-being of this poor soul, but the darkness that pervades it all can almost be stifling. The muted colors and general hopelessness of the early plot do inform the rest of the movie and add that extra kick to the already expertly-crafted fight scenes, but I found myself worrying that the entire movie would exist in this terrible world for the whole 90-minute run. It’s a color palate and level of violence that works for movies like Blade or Underworld, but without their air of fantasy and dark humor, Unleashed wants us to wallow in the pain of its ethos. Thankfully, this pays off massively once Sam and the world of music are introduced and drives the stakes up once Bart and company come back into the scene.
It’s this change of pace which makes the movie shine. Where it could have been just another putrid punch-fest, the vast majority of the story between the crash and the final climax are slow-burn and mostly peaceful scenes with the family. Danny learns how to cook and eat ice cream, and, of course, finds his humanity through his love for the piano – and if there’s one thing this movie does well besides its brawls, it’s the way it advocates for musical therapy. Freeman and Condon do such a fantastic job of being nurturing and protective, and Li is given all the time he needs and more to actually flesh out his beat-down boxer. These are some great examples of character work, which stand out even greater against the cartoonish portrayals from Hoskins and the rest of the violent underground.
Still, Unleashed is a strange film which adheres to no particular taste as master. It’s not as action-packed as many martial arts aficionados may desire, it’s too terribly bleak for the average viewer looking for a good redemption story, and it’s not quite deep enough to get into on a scholarly level. Instead, it lives in a unique limbo, not quite within reach of any standard audience. It’s not a movie I’d necessarily say to pass on, but make sure you know you’re in exactly the right frame of mind before you sit down to watch.