Here’s an irresistible pulp fantasy premise that screams drive-in classic. Danny (Jet Li) has lived his entire life as though he were the attack dog for Cockney gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins, savoring each scene like he’s digging into a meaty steak). Danny lives in an underground cage, and goes berserk on his owner’s enemies whenever his electronic collar is removed. A fluke car accident sets Danny free, his master seemingly killed (one of the favorite running gags of Unleashed is how frequently Bart is almost destroyed, yet pops back into the narrative 20 minutes later, wincing through a neck-brace but still lethal). He winds up in the safe haven of a blind piano teacher, Sam (Morgan Freeman), and his innocent young pupil, Victoria (Kerry Condon, a beautifully gawky bird whose teeth are loaded with gleaming metal braces).
It’s here that Unleashed (whose European title is Danny the Dog) radically shifts gears and spends a good 45 minutes with Danny learning how to become a human being through the healing power of music. Screenwriter Luc Besson loves this sort of holy fool, and finds a trio of them in Danny, Sam, and Victoria. It’s a non-dysfunctional family, because they’re all naïve, innocent, creative, and look at the world through a distorted, cockeyed view. Maybe it’s rosy-colored glasses, but the film implies that it’s a hell of a lot better to see the world that way than to mire one’s self in life’s daily brutalities. Many claim that Americans are blindly optimistic in the Spielberg tradition; but the French reveal themselves to find happiness in the deliriously absurd.
Goofy scenes where Victoria teaches Danny how to eat ice cream between friendly kisses, and Sam offering tips on how to choose fruit (Sam: “Ripe means sweet, and sweet means good!” Danny: “Kisses are ripe!”) feel like scenes from earlier American Jet Li movies turned on their ass. In Romeo Must Die, Aaliyah teaches Jet Li the ways of the hood, and how to wear a hat cockeyed and move to the grooves of R&B. It was utterly condescending and borderline racist, in a complicated and unnerving way. But Unleashed, perhaps without Li or Besson even knowing it, comments on the films preceding it. They did turn Jet Li into a dog for other characters to coddle, or be afraid of. Here’s the logical extension of that genre, taken to its most extreme proportions: Jet Li is a trained animal that the studios don’t know how to handle, so they put him in a formulaic cage. Thank God this multitalented action hero and movie star is finally breaking loose, and is using genre conventions as a means of self-expression.
Sure enough, Bart comes back and tries to lure his Danny back into a fight club sport world of professional gladiators, who battle each other to death in an underground stadium. Place your bets. Yes, you heard me right. Unleashed tries to pull Danny back into his evil hoodlum world and transform him back into a dog, but he’s heard the classical music and united with a new-formed family. Now, he doesn’t want to kill people anymore, and the fight scenes have transformed into Jet Li trying not to maim people. In Terminator 2 this felt like hypocrisy, with Schwarzenegger blowing off people’s kneecaps. Here, it feels like growing up. And his character bounces back and forth between the world of dog-violence and culture, music, and love.
It’s so brazenly on-the-nose and sappy that your head will spin, and that’s not such a bad thing. Unleashed rails against the predictable—at least until its rote anti-climax. They had a wonderful idea and wrote themselves into a corner, with a third act that follows the cookie cutter pattern of action movies. Aside from a stunning close-quarters combat sequence where Jet Li battles a mighty opponent in the limited confines of a bathroom and hallway (after scaring away a naked girl…this is pulp after all!), Unleashed doesn’t really know how to resolve itself: a man has been raised as a dog, he learns how to be a human being…and then? He beats everybody up? It’s a bit of a letdown.
For once, the discombobulated chop-chop editing of modern action films befits the main character’s headspace: a befuddled innocent that goes mad-dog crazy. And after nearly a half-hour of psychopathic violence followed by the dog-man’s human degradation, director Louis Letterier moves into a slower rhythm. It’s almost as though the psychokinetic action genre were a ruse to get audiences into the theater, when the movie is really about discovering the self. Corny, sure…but also a kind of movie that you don’t get the chance to see nowadays: one with story arcs you didn’t see coming. Unleashed offers a strange premise and radical shifts in tone the likes of which haven’t been seen since Samuel Fuller’s delirious Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. It’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder whether they should build drive-in theaters, just so they can show stuff like this!