Until now, Jet Li has often been used as the quiet martial arts expert. If you had a role that didn’t require much in the way of speaking, but really needed someone to kick some ass, Li was your man. Unleashed pulls Li past that, proving that while he can still kick ass, there is a truly talented actor behind those flying fists and feet.
In Unleashed Li is Danny, a collared goon for his crime boss “Uncle”, Bart (Bob Hoskins). Bart hauls him around from payment collection to collection threatening those who owe him money with this: if they don’t pay up the collar comes off. It’s hard to believe someone who looks so dead behind their eyes could be much of a threat, but when the collar comes off Danny is “unleashed” and attacks his targets with a savage intensity that serves only one purpose - to kill. The spark of life that fires up as Danny’s collar is removed shows he is not there just to hurt people, but to remove problems from existence entirely. It’s a change that happens in a second with a subtle physical shift that really proves Li can hold his own as an actor. Once it happens, all bets are off as Danny beats his opponents relentlessly, shown smartly by director Louis Leterrier through longer camera shots that allow the audience to see Li's skill as a fighter and Woo-ping Yuen's choreography.
The fights make up little of Unleashed though. Once it’s established what a brutal killer Danny can be, the film takes him out of that element as a car crash leaves him collared and alone, without the evil men responsible for his savage talents. Danny returns to the site of one of his last collections, where a blind piano tuner treated him with kindness. As Danny builds a relationship with Sam the tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) we start to see he’s not dead with the collar on, just underdeveloped. Danny is still very much a child, one to whom everything in the world is new and fresh. While the idea of being around a family who loves him is strange, it slowly becomes something Danny gets used to.
Unleashed’s story is almost exactly what you’d expect from Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Leon the Professional), a screenwriter who tends to use the reoccurring theme of identity in his scripts. Here it’s a question of Danny’s identity. Who is he really - a horrific, brutal pet, or a childlike, innocent soul? It’s an interesting debate carried throughout the film, although as a theme it tends to get a little heavy handed, practically smacking the audience with one of Danny’s fists to make sure they get the idea that when surrounded by different families Danny is a different person.
What makes the film work as a whole though are the acting talents of Jet Li, who manages to not only hold his own, but do better than greats like Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman. Both Freeman and Hoskins have the easier job here - their characters are pretty much one dimensional players. Hoskins is the cruelty that raised Li to be what he is, Freeman is the kindness that becomes Li’s salvation. The conflict between the two emotions takes place within Li, and is something that is strongly evident from the moment he first comes into contact with Freeman’s Sam. It’s a shame that with those three fantastic talents, the film stumbles with Sam’s daughter, horribly played by Kerry Condon. Victoria should be another argument for the family of love and kindness, but instead Condon’s attempt at the character pulled me out of the movie every time she fumbles with emotion. I don’t usually like to rank on bad acting, but with this single role Condon gets tacked on my list next to Juliette Lewis and Jennifer Tilly.
If you’re looking for a martial arts spectacle, don’t look to Unleashed. While the fights are impressive, they aren’t the focal point of the film. Instead think of Unleashed as a modern day Frankenstein, only this monster isn’t assembled piece by piece, he is still created by a madman, and then taught to truly be human through the compassion of a blind man... and his poorly acted daughter.