'Unleashed' Reins In the Action

Danny (Jet Li) is raised like a fighting dog until he gets in touch with his human side in the action drama film
Danny (Jet Li) is raised like a fighting dog until he gets in touch with his human side in the action drama film "Unleashed." (Rogue Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

"GET 'EM."

That's the simple command Uncle Bart (Bob Hoskins) gives when he unleashes Danny (Jet Li) at the beginning of "Unleashed." Danny's the human pit bull Bart has raised since he was a pup, conditioned to attack on command, violently and without mercy. This proves extremely useful in Bart's line of work -- he's a ruthless, heartless loan shark on the mean streets of Glasgow -- but it's literally a dog's life for Danny. He sleeps in a cage, eats out of tins and wears a thick iron collar around his neck. When it's removed and he's cued up, Danny explodes, transitioning from docile to dynamite in a heartbeat. The extended opening sequence involves several close encounters of the hurting kind, with multiple fractures, head butts and other major mayhem.

Danny is one bad dog.

Bart is something of a bulldog himself, though he maintains his power mostly through Danny, who may be the most effective collection agent in history before Bart discovers he may be even more valuable as a gladiator in the underground world of to-the-death matches, where his first encounter recalls Brad Pitt's hilariously brief opening encounter as Achilles in "Troy."

But what starts as a martial arts actioner mixed with the British neo-gangster genre turns to more conventional drama after Danny has an accidental encounter with kindly, old, blind American piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman, as if it could be anyone else). Sam, in Glasgow while stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) studies at a conservatory, doesn't see the dog but senses the man in Danny and retunes him with kindness and a fledgling keyboard connection.

When Danny becomes a stray after Bart and his boys are attacked by a rival gang, Sam and Victoria take him in and begin to humanize him through the redemptive power of food, music and love. Eventually, of course, Danny's diametrically opposed father figures will compete for his soul, and the newly minted pacifist will be forced to fight in order to save himself and those he belatedly loves.

Directed by Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter"), "Unleashed" was written and produced by Luc Besson, who has explored transformations of violent characters in "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional." Besson previously worked with Li on the violent "Kiss of the Dragon," but they are after something different here. For one, the world martial arts champ is continuing to stretch as an actor, though wisely avoiding the comedic route of Jackie Chan. Decidedly noble in last year's epic "Hero," Li is here required to be vulnerable, fragile, sweetly innocent and childlike, a short-fused lethal weapon reshaped into a thoughtful human being. For the first time in his 30-film career, Li took acting lessons, and although his English remains problematic, he's not required to talk as a dog, and only minimally as a human. There is a nice role reversal, though: He's usually the one saving people, but this time around it's Li who is saved by people.

This may pose a challenge to Li fans, since there are long stretches of nonviolent drama and curious juxtapositions of tough and tender scenes, some seeming to last too long, others not long enough. The fight sequences, choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping ("The Matrix," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), are spectacularly intense, scored by the aptly named Massive Attack. As for Danny's dual mentors, the bulldoggish Hoskins could play pugnacious, loquacious Bart in his sleep (reference "The Long Good Friday"), much as Freeman could play the wise and soulful Sam in his sleep. These veterans do most of the talking in a film that could use a little less conversation, a lot more action, please.

UNLEASHED (R, 103 minutes) -- Contains strong violent content, language, and some sexuality and nudity. Area theaters.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company