'Unleashed': Audiences Will Sit, but Will They Stay?
Friday, May 13, 2005
The great Chinese martial arts star Jet Li has had a hard time finding a niche here in the West. He's as fast as light and hits harder than a tank and he's got spin-kicking, punch-throwing dazzlers no one ever dreamed of before. But when he stands still, talks or presents himself to a camera, his charisma evaporates and we are left with an unprepossessing little fellow with the personality of a plastic fork.
In the fabulously interesting, if not quite successful "Unleashed," he at last finds a persona that works for him. The film is engineered brilliantly as a star vehicle, meant to give Li not merely stature but humanity as well, to let him register in a recognizable way while still finding the space to show off his Wu Shu stylistics. Why, he approaches adorability! It's great marketing for the Jetster; too bad the movie isn't actually good in the same bargain.
The author of this marketing miracle is the shrewd Frenchman Luc Besson, who wrote and produced (an acolyte, Louis Leterrier, directed, presumably in the master's style). Besson, as he showed in "La Femme Nikita" and the cult classic "The Professional," and even slightly in his goofy Joan of Arc movie "The Messenger," has a fondness for the feral child theme. He likes to imagine the dramatic possibilities in a wild-raised child whose natural aggressive tendencies have been unchecked by socialization and who has grown, therefore, into an unselfconscious apostle of violence. Then, Besson adds a wrinkle: that person is discovered by a corrupt person or entity who, recognizing the value of violence uncontaminated by morality, puts the person to corrupt usage. The drama ensues when, somehow, the violent one meets a pure personality, is rescued from mindless savagery, joins the human community, and now must fight those who corrupted him, usually to protect his saviors. That, more or less, is the plot to both "Nikita" and "Professional"; that, more, is exactly the plot of "Unleashed."
Thus we discover Danny the human dog (Li). He lives in a cage. He wears a collar that at his primitive state of mental development he takes as restraint; when it is removed, he unleashes extreme violence where directed. Then, collar restored by the master, he returns to passivity, to his cage, his one child's book, his teddy bear and sustenance from cans of cold spaghetti.
Terrific idea, no? Really, quite bright, quite original, full of rapturous pulp potential. But you will be disappointed, as I was, to learn that the setting is low-rent London gangsterdom, a scuffling world of scams and drugs and debt collection. Danny's master is Bart, played by Bob Hoskins in much the same performance as the one he delivered in "The Long Good Friday" 25 years ago. Lacking ambition and imagination, he pretty much uses Danny as a kind of debt enforcer, those great martial arts skills spent pounding 50 quid out of this or that posse of lowlifes.
The movie gets interesting when a rival gangster mob seemingly ambushes and murders Bart and the boys; Danny, with his zero life skills, is suddenly exiled to the streets of London. He somehow (it takes place off camera) finds the one human who has been nice to him. This is blind piano tuner -- yes, I hate blind piano tuner movies, too -- Sam, played by Morgan Freeman, who lives with his ward Victoria (Irish actress Kerry Condon) in a $7.5 million restored townhouse in Mayfair (movie idea of rents!) while Victoria studies the piano.
It turns out that Danny responds to piano music, and they respond to him responding to it, and so a family, idealized, sentimentalized, ridiculous but somehow idiotically moving, is born. Danny, gently and lovingly, is nursed to health and wholeness, he is socialized, he is reentered in humanity.
Examine, please, the genius here: Li is not yet really fluent in English and lacks an expressive voice in any case, so he is initially presented as a near mute with a passive face, a persona easy for him to capture. Then, in the bosom of civilization, he gets to do a cute and lovable childlike turn as the waking waif, and it turns out he has a superb sense of comic timing not evident before. His little discoveries are heartwarming, his burgeoning but chaste love for Victoria awe-inspiring and the whole movie, for a while, comes to feel like superior Disney product circa 1964.
And of course you know where it's going. The gangsters return to Danny's life, only now they bring their fury to the wondrous deliverers Sam and Victoria. Danny must fight, not because he's a dog but because he's a man. Instead of being unleashed, he is motivated. Instead of instinct, he is propelled by will. And so now -- again the calculation is meticulously blueprinted -- his Wu Shu skills are not mere spectacle, they are righteous expressions of love and loyalty.
The movie would work better with fewer elements; the gangsters who ambush Bart, for example, are forgotten, as is a decadent fight promoter. A subplot of Danny's recovering memories and the solution to the mystery of his origins isn't exactly stunning. But the real flaw in the film is Hoskins, not because he's a bad actor -- he's a brilliant actor -- but because he carries such warm and shaggy baggage from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and other such wonders that he lacks the fury to be the sole villain. It's Bob Hoskins: You can't hate him the way the movie requires you to. Michael Caine, now he can order his eyeballs into deadness and be a truly terrifying cockney villain; Ian McShane will curl your toes with his capacity for suggesting evil. Hoskins is too cuddly.
Still, Jet Li shows that not only can he kick, he can act a little, too. At last.