"Unleashed", starring Jet Li, provides the martial arts star with an interesting role in a film produced by Luc Besson ("Leon", "La Femme Nikita"). Besson's involvement brings the quality of the film up a couple of notches but also ensures that the story will be more than a little strange.
Danny (Jet Li) has been raised by his "Uncle" Bart (Bob Hoskins) since he was a child. Living in a cage, underground, with dirty clothes and forced to eat out of cans, Danny knows that when Bart releases the collar around his neck, he is supposed to kill or maim all of Bart's enemies. This naturally makes Bart a very successful provider of `protection' to the merchants of Glasgow, Scotland. At one of these stops, Danny is told to wait in the warehouse of an antique dealer, filled with pianos. Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner, arrives to work on the pianos and they meet. After a series of events, Danny returns to the warehouse and finds Sam again. Sam takes him in and his step-daughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon) befriends him and teaches him how to play the piano.
We'll return to the story in a moment.
First, the actors. Jet Li is a martial arts dynamo and clearly has been practicing this art form for much of his life. It seems as natural to him as walking seems to me. In his previous films, he has played cops, gangsters, etc., usually with a `heart of gold'. As events take place around him, he slowly realizes that he has to do something and fight for the people who are unable to fight. He then jumps into action, kicking and punching the villains. What these films lack is a character for Li to play that works with his limited skill as an actor. Let's face it. He's not an actor. Great martial arts skills, but not an actor. In "Unleashed", he has that character. Danny doesn't talk much (always a good thing for an `action star', see Keanu Reeves in "Speed" and "The Matrix" for an example). Raised by his "Uncle" from childhood, he is merely a tool for Bart's use. As the film progresses, we see that Danny is missing something in life. These are simple moments, which work for the character. For instance, he looks at a simple picture book and his finger traces over the picture of "P is for Piano". Later, another scene adds to the significance of this moment. As he begins to open up, he does so in a more or less believable way. It is a subtle performance that works for the character and within the range of the actor.
Bob Hoskins has the showiest role. As Bart, the protection enforcer, he roams around Glasgow like King of a fiefdom. His character is loud, brassy and obnoxious. And it changes little throughout the film. Not one of his better efforts, but it works within the context of the film.
Morgan Freeman's Sam doesn't have much bite. The kindly piano tuner with a heart of gold, his character would naturally help befriend Danny. He brings Danny into his home, teaches him about shopping, how to communicate, plays a bit of a matchmaker. It is a very soft performance, clearly meant to counteract the rest of the craziness happening in Danny's life. But there is no edge, and Sam gets lost in the proceedings.
His step-daughter, Victoria, played by Kerry Condon is just plain strange. Initially, she seems to be fifteen, but the story quickly establishes that she is 18, because they want her to fall in love with Danny. If she were younger, she wouldn't make a viable love interest for Danny. The `love interest' angle doesn't work at all. Her character works best when she is showing Danny various aspects of `normal' life. She is quite over the top and provides a strange slant to the story. The film would be much more successful if she were a more normal person.
But how normal can any of them be? The story sets everything up to ensure that it will, at best, be viewed as a fairy tale of sorts. We have a British gangster in Glasgow, Scotland, who uses a Chinese man as a weapon when enforcing his `protection' services. My first question is this: Why would anyone in Glasgow care if they have protection from a British gangster? Then Danny meets Sam, a blind African - American piano tuner living in Glasgow. Yeah, that could happen. Sam has a Caucasian step-daughter, Victoria. The reason they are in Glasgow? Because Victoria is studying piano. They had a choice between a school in Kansas and a school in Glasgow... No, I'm not kidding.
Most of the films produced or directed by Luc Besson attract international casts. I would venture that he probably seeks them out as well. He isn't stupid. He knows that having Jet Li, Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins in the same film will make the project that much more desirable in a number of countries. I'm not saying it works, but from a financial standpoint, it makes sense. From a story standpoint, it is clearly lacking.
The martial arts are outstanding. Jet Li, is appropriately, unleashed on a number of challengers, quickly dispatching them. We have seen this type of thing in other martial arts films. But the choreography, by Woo Ping-Yuen, is much faster and more exciting to watch than I am used to. My favorite segment concerns a hired gun sent in to destroy Danny. Dressed like a Buddhist, he is the closest match Danny has ever faced. During their fight, they find themselves in a narrow hallway, barely able to move their arms, yet the do. This fight is unusual, interesting and well-choreographed.
As you watch "Unleashed", you get caught up in it and are willing to overlook the flaws in the story.