There is something about a story detailing the human spirit. No matter how inhuman the conditions a person is subjected to it is possible to muster the intestinal fortitude to rise above in triumph. When you combine such a theme with masterly played marital arts you come up with a film that is exciting and actually has a story to hold your interest. Unleashed, originally titled ‘Danny the Dog’, considers the bleak existence of Danny (Jet Li) a man raised since childhood as a dog, a literal slave to his master Uncle Bart (Bob Hoskins). Danny is kept in a small cage beneath the headquarters of Bart who happens to be one of Glasgow’s leading loan sharks and all round gangsters. Coming from New York City I really didn’t think of Glasgow as such a center of organized crime but it works. Danny is much like a pit bull who is trained for the brutal endeavor of dog fights. When his collar is on he is gentle almost child-like, waiting at Bart’s side for the fatal command. When the collar is removed and Bart orders Danny to attack the results are swift and usually results in a horrible beating for those that fell behind paying Bart. Once the collar is returned Danny once again becomes the passive dog. Danny is not treated even remotely in a human fashion, he eats with his fingers out of cans of food tossed in his cage, is lead by a leash attached to his collar and even patted on the head when he pleases his masters. Somewhere deep insider Danny still fights to retain a shred of humanity. He has vague memories pianos and music and when ever his glances at the instrument the long repressed feelings attempt to surface. Even an abused dog can become feed up with his master. While initially incapable of actually turning on Bart Danny does escape and runs away. On his own for the first time he is dazed but hears piano music drawing him, the source is a blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his step-daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). Slowly, recollections begin to grow stronger in Danny; he begins to remember that his mother was a pianist and images of how he can to be the dog start to regain a hold in his mind. With his mind somewhat restored, as is his human dignity, Danny returns to face Bart and uncover the final secrets of how he was forced into such a state.
What appealed to me about this movie is how it managed to play against type. I remember the television spots for it and though it was just another martial arts flick with one fight sequence after another. After reviewing it I was pleasantly surprised. First was the structure of the film, set in three acts the audience is initially introduced to Danny, then there is his reintroduction to humanity concluding with him facing Bart and his past. The second act is almost completely devoid of violence. There is a tenderness invoked as Sam and Victoria take on the task of return Danny to the ranks of humanity. Even the relationship depicted between Victoria and Danny is atypical of the usual action flick. There is no lust to develop; Danny’s first encounter with a young woman is one of kindness and gentle affection. When the action resumes in the third act the audience is completely on Danny’s side, we are rooting for him to get back at the dastardly Bart. The best and worse aspects of the human condition are on display here, the kindness of Sam versus the brutality of Bart with Danny caught in the middle.
In so many action flicks only the main hero is at all recognizable. Here, the cast is actually comprised of actors with genuine talent. Jet Li is one of the greatest martial arts expects on film today but he can also provide the audience with a believable, emotional performance. This is particularly important in a film such as this where the middle of the piece demands emotional connection and a lot of exposition. It is easy to get the audience on the edge of there seats as people fly through the air, smashing through everything in sight and going through feats impossible in any environment with gravity. Li is able to hold the audience’s attention during the slower moments. In his thirty year plus career Bob Hoskins has portrayed just about every imaginable character possible; from Shakespeare to the whimsy of Peter Pan he has taken every role and made it into a gem to watch. Here Hoskins is the quintessential villain, completely lacking in any of the softer emotions that plague those he prays upon. There is more vile grit in his 5’4" frame than you could possibly imagine. He avoids the trap inherent in a character like Bart, over the top and one dimensional. He chose an alternative playing Bart as a man from the brutal streets that has gained and retrains control though only one means, sudden, unforgiving violence. For him Danny is an instrument to bring any that opposes him to a lot of pain. Instead of having the contrast to Bart lie in Danny the story uses Morgan Freeman’s character Sam. Freeman also has made a successful career playing men of drive and character. There is a natural fatherly quality to him that makes his relationship with Danny believable and emotionally satisfying. Sam is the catalyst for Danny, giving him the means to regain a human personality. Kerry Condon may be new to the silver screen but she is a star on the verge of coming into her own. As Victoria she really sells the platonic relationship with Danny. Here are two vital young people who connect emotionally instead of viscerally. For those out there who want to see more of this talented young actress just check her out in HBO’s new series Rome where she plays the belabored Octavia of the Julii.
There is also a lot of talent behind the camera here. Martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, has worked on the Kill Bill flicks as well as the Matrix trilogy. He makes the actors defy gravity with a grace that is wonderful to see. This is a freshmen effort for director Louis Leterrier. He did follow it up with another action flick, Transporter 2. He has worked beside some of the greats and he obviously paid attention. Leterrier is able to merge action with an interesting story line in such a way that the audience can forget some of the holes in the plot and just enjoy. The story was written by famous director and writer Luc Besson. Besson is talented especially when it comes to creating a tale that is out of the box. Here he shows the conflict in people, the duality of our dark and light side using the plight of Danny as a metaphor. The film works because of how Besson is able to unfold the relationships slowly, allowing the audience time to absorb the details.
Universal presents this film in three separate DVD versions; R rated pan & scan, R rated widescreen and unrated widescreen. Even though there is not much added to the unrated version the price is the same so get later. The video is master quality. There are scenes done in sepia that come out great contrasted to the full color video. The color balance is well done, colors pushed at times for effect but not detracting from the story. For the audio you have the choice between Dolby 5.1 and DTS. I found the DTS has a better rear separation that the Dolby but both are robust. The sub woofer booms out in the action scenes and will shake your living room. There are a few extras provided. Serve No Master takes a look at the stunts created by Ping and how they where brought to the screen. There is a behind the scenes featurette named The Collar Comes Off that takes the viewer through the production of the film. Add a couple music video and you have a great presentation. If you are looking for a run of the mill action flick look elsewhere, this is an actual story that just happens to have some great martial arts.