A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 103 mins.
Danny: Jet Li / Sam: Morgan Freeman / Bart: Bob Hoskins
/ Victoria: Kerry Condon / Righty: Andy Beckwith / Infirmier: Christian Gazio
/ Wyeth: Michael Jenn / Maddy: Carole Ann Wilson
The new film UNLEASHED poses one of the great moral questions: Why in the hell is a great actor like Morgan Freeman in a lackluster film with, of all people, Jet Li? Now, before I engage in my endless diatribe as to why this film is a negligible piece of popcorn entertainment, I will pose another question to you: What is fundamentally worse, an action film without any brains or a brainless action film that tries ever-so desperately to be a sappy, sentimental family parable at the same time?
Hmmmm…I think that I would chose the first choice. At least with a brainless action film it has no real pretensions about being something larger and more meaningful.
The largest obstacle in the way of my enjoyment of UNLEASHED is that despite the fact that it’s a well stylized and frantic kung fu action picture without much intelligence, it shamefully tries to fuse that already mindless mayhem with such mawkish melodrama that it achieves, and succeeds, in being overtly sappy and sentimental. Not only that, but the presence of one of the finest actors of our generation is dragged along for the ride in one of his most embarrassing turns as an actor.
What was Morgan Freeman thinking?
UNLEASHED is yet another North American entry into the kung fu action picture for Jet Li, and to this day his has had decidedly mixed results. He was introduced to stateside audiences in the woefully unnecessary LETHAL WEAPON 4 in 1998 and then followed up that film with 2000’s disappointing ROMEO MUST DIE. Other witless and uninspired films followed, including the moronically premised THE ONE in 2001 and CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE in 2003. Even some of his more critically respected Hong Kong fare has not sat too well with me – I thought that HERO was a beautiful looking film with a bland a lifeless performance from Li himself.
Li has never really been a performer of life, charisma, or whimsical vitality like, say, Jackie Chan, nor has he even been the likeable screen presence that Chan is. He primarily plays to his gifts, which is kicking a lot of tail in the most lovingly choreographed ways. Anything that ventures far from this is strained from the get-go. Many have said (including Li himself) that UNLEASHED demonstrates his most varied and layered performance in a mainstream Hollywood film. That is saying an awful lot, considering that he essentially plays a human dog throughout most of it. Li should not, even after UNLEASHED, completely sidestep the long-term idea of furthering acting lessons.
UNLEASHED is the latest brainchild of screenwriter Luc Besson, who seems to have been focusing more on writing and less on directing lately. He has made some truly original films, like the original European cut of LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (still one of his best works), as well as the futuristic and colorful THE FIFTH ELEMENT. He has previously teamed up with Jet Li on KISS OF THE DRAGON, which he co-wrote with Robert Mark Kamen (THE KARATE KID series) and was a film that existed purely on the levels of exploiting Li’s impressive acrobatic talents and more or less achieved that. Besson also worked with UNLEASHED director Louis Leterrier on THE TRANSPORTER, an action film that stuck to the basic conventions of its genre and was effective as an inventive and light hearted action flick.
The problem with UNLEASHED is precisely with its own story that it wants to tell and the manner in which it wants to tell it. The premise itself has been told countless times before and with much more efficiency. UNLEASHED offers up an age-old story – boy is discovered by dangerous man, dangerous man raises boy to an adult and programs him to be a vicious killer, man manages to escape from the dangerous surrogate father figure, man gets a taste of outside life and when the dangerous surrogate father comes to reclaim him, he refuses because he has tasted what a real life with a real family has offered him. Awwwww.
UNLEASHED is probably one of the first sappy kung fu orgies of death and destruction that I have ever seen. Anyone expecting a pure action film without too many hang-ups may wish to avoid it, as it starts to make the transition away from being a guileless and kinetic action picture to one that dives right into the type of shoddy and manipulative melodramatic waters that I thought were only capable from films called PATCH ADAMS. And not only that, but we are forced to sit through the great Morgan Freeman spout out lines of horrendous dialogue like, “No, if you kill him, then you’ll end up no better than him!” Just what in the world was Freeman thinking?
UNLEASHED begins simply. Jet Li stares as Danny, a martial artists of enormous speed, strength, and versatility that has been raised for life by a vile British mobster named Bart (the devilishly evil Bob Hoskins). Bart sort of raised Danny on a Pavlovian system of making him attack and terribly beating up anyone that he desires when he removes a dog collar from around his neck. It’s funny, but the film never has the patience or the time to precisely explain how the heck this dog collar system of conditioning works. As far as I can tell, when Danny wears the color, he is good and docile. When the collar is removed, Danny goes into killing machine mode and returns back to his state when his master puts the collar back on.
Oh, I guess it’s a much more laborious and complicated process than that: Bart not only removes the color, but then tells Danny “get ‘em” and then the martial artist goes into enforcer mode. Okay, but how exactly does Danny know which person he needs to “get” without some sort of reinforcement as to who he has to hurt? “Get ‘em” is not the most precise of orders, but in the film it serves a multitude of uses. Also, how does wearing the collar make him docile? Does he like the feel of smooth leather against his neck? Does it inject him with some sort of laxative? Or, is Danny just really fashion conscious and hates it when someone removes his S&M neckwear? I dunno…you decide.
Anyway, Danny is really proficient at what he does. He also very rarely ever expresses himself to anyone, is emotionally shutoff, and is ostensibly treated like a dog by the unattainably cruel Bart. He lives in a cage, is a simpleton, and is feed food scraps like a chained animal. However, it seems that karma has caught up with the malevolent Bart and in one split moment Danny finds himself free from his former slave master and is befriended by a blind piano tuner named Sam, played by Morgan Freeman in what has to be the least convincing “blind” performances I’ve seen in a long time, which pains me to say since it is, after all, Morgan Freeman. What was he thinking?
Sam, because he is blind, does not see the cagey killer that is Danny, but he is not too blind to see that beneath his king fu grip and cold hearted stare is a confused young boy with a heart of gold. More pretentiousness and silliness ensues when the blind man befriends Danny and offers him a place to stay, quiet a remarkable offer for a man to give to a complete stranger that does not seem to verbalize himself well at all and appears genuinely lacking in any type of social skills. Why Sam offers him refuge it's not done for the sake of realism, but more or less to facilitate the rest of the film’s shaky and inane plot.
Sam and his 18-year-old daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) willfully take in Danny into their home. Victoria herself is on full idiot-plot syndrome as a persona, as she never once challenges her stepfather for bringing home what seems like a street bum, not to mention that she takes an awfully long time to acknowledge the fact that Danny is wearing a weird collar around his neck. She treats Danny without the slightest preclusions of suspicion, and seems to teach him the very basics of life too quickly, like shopping for clothes, picking ripe fruit at the super market, playing the piano, and eating ice cream. Soon, the animal becomes a human being and thus sheds his Elephant Man Complex. Yes, Danny has been embraced into the tight family unit that Sam and Victoria have given him, that is until Bart shows up with his army of stooges to reclaim his dog.
The film basically falls apart on one key and pertinent level – when it is a no-holds-barred action film, UNLEASHED is exciting and fever pitched, but when it desperately tries to ground itself in family drama, the film is so shamefully and unintentionally inert and humorous. For every moment you gasp at the film’s action you let out a similar response to the film’s drama. The basic premise itself is ridiculous enough, but to have the film transform into an stupid allegory on the nature of true family and the importance of fighting for those that matter – then you know you’re in trouble.
Yes, there are occasional glimpses of interest here and there, but a film with as much silly action as this one tries way, way too hard to have a heart and be about something. This is a film where I will rarely say that it needs more kung fu action and less brainless rambling and dialogue. The film’s “family” moments with Sam and Victoria are like being force fed soppiness when what your really crave visceral thrills. No only that, but Freeman’s character never really resonates with any sort of believability and is reduced down to reciting passages that would not be an embarrassment if you were not Morgan Freeman. His presence and performance, as unfortunate as it is to say, is one of the more frustrating and distracting elements in the film. And not only that, but what was he thinking?
I have been harsh on UNLEASHED to a fault. There are only two real saving graces to this film. One being the exhilarating and hard-edged martial arts scenes, which were choreographed by the master of kung fu mayhem himself, Yeun Wo-ping. As with the other films he has been involved in, he creates fight scenes here not of realism but of energy and animation. When the action is on screen you are transfixed and never bored. The only other positive attribute to this film is the performance by Hoskin, who really chews his teeth into the despicable piece of vermin that is Bart. He taps into the underlying viciousness and rage of Bart so effortless that you kind of feel sad for him that an antagonistic presence so strong could not have been in a better action film.
UNLEASHED is a really spoiled entry into the martial arts genre. It tries to be the weirdest of all marriages – a chop-sockey action film and a thematic, Capra-esque message film that borders on ridiculous and wishy-washy more than motivated and insightful. Yes, Jet Li fans will get endless scenes of slickly choreographed fight montages that are lively and exciting, but they are pigeonholed in a moronic plot that tries to amplify the after-school special virtue that “violence=bad, family and love=good”. C’mon, whom are they really fooling? At least when Leterrier and Besson made THE TRANSPORTER, they were not trying to be preachy and knew they were making a pleasurable and fun action picture. UNLEASHED needs to be chained and locked up for safe keeping away from audiences.
And Morgan Freeman…what was he thinking?
NOTE: One reader chimed in to tell me that this was not the first time Morgan Freeman engaged himself in something cinematically negligible. He correctly reminded me that he was in last year's trainwreck that was THE BIG BOUNCE, not to mention that he was in one of my very own picks for one of the very worst films of 2003 - DREAMCATCHER. I guess even the best critics have their memory lapses.