“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” What on earth does that phrase have to do with Jet Li’s Unleashed? More than you might think. The reality is that I enjoy repeating lines from great movies, especially when I’m writing about a mediocre one. Go on, take a guess at what film I quoted, read this review, somewhere along the way I just might tell you if you’ve guessed right.
What do you get when you treat someone like a dog? You get someone who behaves like a dog. Whether they’re a good dog or a bad dog is the real key and Danny has been treated like a very bad dog. Danny, played by the consummate screen fighter Jet Li, has been raised like a brutal animal by a man who collects money for a living. Uncle Bart, embodied by the delightfully wicked Bob Hoskins, uses the psychologically warped Danny as sort of attack animal, having trained him to be completely docile so long as he is wearing his collar. When Uncle Bart needs to teach one of his dead beat clients a lesson, the collar comes off and Danny goes into some of the most malicious frenzies conceivable.
One day the pseudo-loving Uncle Bart is involved in a not so accidental car wreck, leaving Danny with nowhere to go. He ends up in the care of a kindly, old, blind man named Sam, whose almost completely irrelevant back story regularly pops up in the film as though the entire point of the story hinged on it. Sam lives with his adopted daughter Victoria and together the two of them set out to cure Danny of his repressed humanity through the magic of piano playing, cooking and the love of a family. Morgan Freeman and Kerry Condon play father and daughter respectively, both of them looking much too old for their characters. His collar firmly in place, Danny discovers a world of peace and happiness with these folks who treat him so well. Still, he finds himself torn between his new loving family and the psychological hold of his old, cruel master who held the leash for so long.
Unleashed, like Danny, seems torn. Does it want to be an action flick or is it a drama? It’s at its best when the fight choreography kicks in. Jet Li is an excellent stunt fighter, and master choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (the man behind the fights in the Kill Bill and Matrix films) has created some stunningly brutal yet intricate sequences. Things begin to deflate a little when the story completely shifts gears and literally becomes a little lost puppy story. Danny and Victoria spend their days frolicking through town as she reveals to him all the wonderful things he never knew existed like ice cream and boat rides on the river. In the end the movie is what you treat it as. Consider it an action movie and it will dazzle you, occasionally bogging down with slightly charming melodrama. Think of it as a drama and you will be moved by its sweeter moments and occasional dark nuances, now and again being driven to fits of frantic violence to move the story along. Both sides exist within the film, but they don’t mingle very well. You’ll have to pick which you think it is and hope for the best.
How is it that a movie comes to be such a dichotomy? (That’s a spelling word kids, be sure you know how to use it in a sentence). Blame it on the French, I guess. Director Louis Leterrier and writer Luc Besson teamed up to create Danny’s story. Both somewhat fearless in their cinematic efforts (these are the guys that banked on a sequel to Transporter and cashed in), their collaboration oozes not only with blood and puppy love, but with the kind of risky artistry that is characteristic of guys with wacky European hairdos, like Tim Burton only with thicker accents.
The action sequences are uniquely exciting, combining the energies of martial arts and street fighting with the result being something like Bruce Lee meets Thunderdome. Too bad the same can’t be said for the dramatic side of things. Hoskins and Freeman are the soul of the film, stepping out of their comfort zones and playing roles we don’t usually get to see from them. They’re limited by a script that meanders around until it’s time for someone to fight again. Jet Li may be a great fighter but he has a long way to go to become a great dramatic actor. He’s saved in this film by the fact that he isn’t called on to act so much as simply emote. Fortunately Li has his angry, happy, scared and sad faces all ready to go.
There is a deeper thread, an occasionally touching story that runs through Unleashed but it’s not enough to tie together the two distinctly different genres. Are we humans or are we monsters, ladies or flower shop girls? Unleashed, like My Fair Lady (did you guess right?), believes it depends on how we’re treated. How you treat the movie will probably determine whether or not you’ll like it too.
Unleashed has gone where so many have shamelessly gone before: the land of the unrated release. The movie is so violent to begin with, it’s hard to tell whether the added material was really too intense for a rated R film or if its just been dumped back in and withheld from the MPAA so they could slap an unrated sticker on it. Even more suspicious is the fact that the running time of this DVD and the theatrical release are pretty much identical. The pet peeves don’t stop there.
Rather than simply include a menu with extended and deleted scenes the disc’s producers have chosen to interweave them into the film, forcing you to watch the movie to see them. A little icon pops onto the screen to let you know you’re about to be thrust into a unfinished segment with extra material stitched into place. I really don’t mind that kind of a feature but I prefer to also have the option of watching them separately. Some of us don’t like watching a movie twice just to see the deleted scenes.
Director Louis Leterrier graciously grants five minutes of his time to talk about the film. It’s an unimpressive bit of interviewing where he shares what was most important to him about the process of creating Unleashed. He’s a relatively young and new director and he sounds like it, bubbling and gushing over eveything. In this case I’m kind of glad he didn’t offer up a full blown commentary. Leterrier needs a few more films under his belt to get the giddiness out of his system. A second, only slightly longer feature with the bizarre title Serve No Master goes behind the scenes of the fight choreography. It’s well worth the short time it will take to watch it. The Collar Comes Off: Behind The Scenes is the third and final featurette. Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins and Jet Li take turns discussing their characters and the story in between montages from the film. It too is short and the three featurettes together add up to less than half an hour, not a very appealing line up of extra content.
The only other bonus items are a couple of music videos. The first one is really more of a techno sounding trailer, sans the voice over. The second, produced by hip hop/rap performers RZA, falls prey to marketing insecurities. RZA’s name is plastered all over the video making it hard to tell if it’s a about the movie featuring the group or vice versa. It’s really not that great of a song anyway.
Unleashed: Unrated? There’s no reason to get excited over the DVD’s lack of rating. Any extra violence is hard to catch since the movie's already so action packed. It’s just more fluff marketing, not becoming for a movie this tough and exciting. Rent this one first to make sure you really want it in your collection. With such a wimpy turn out this time, I’d wager a collector’s edition isn’t to far around the corner.