It’s hard to know what to look for in a martial arts film. More often than not, they go for the jugular — overwhelming your senses with a nonstop barrage of asskicking and thrilling stunts. Mostly you get your money’s worth for the entertainment, but do you ever really leave the theater giving a damn about what you’ve seen? This kind of film tends to be noticeably lacking in the story department. The plot, if you could even call it that, is usually a bland mishmash of hamfisted dialogue and cheeseball motivation that is simply meant to give the audience a breather before the next set of blows starts to fall. With Unleashed, the unexpected occurs — a genuinely good balance of the two.
Considering that Luc Besson did the writing in this one, it should be less of a surprise. Besson has a history of improbably melding action with saccharine emotion, i.e., The Professional and La Femme Nikita. This time around, Bob Hoskins plays a feisty gangster in Glasgow’s underground. The ace up this walking snarl’s sleeve is a brainwashed manchild named Danny (Jet Li). All “Uncle Bart” has to do is take the collar off his carefully conditioned pet and a blistering salvo of whoop-ass is … ahem … unleashed. Once the Pavlovian collar goes back on, Danny returns to a state of docile pacifism.
The opening third of the movie contains so many flurrying combat sequences that it’s almost a shock when the story arrives at its central pathos. A chain of events leads to Danny’s escape and adoption by a kindly old piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his loopy step-daughter (Kerry Condon). Danny turns out to be a character of astoundingly good fortune, since the two scarcely bat an eyelash at the thought of taking in, providing for, and nourishing this emotional invalid back to well-being. Sure, it’s implausible and sometimes cloying, but it doesn’t matter. Jet Li manages to be both believable and sympathetic as an innocent halfwit, and if Morgan Freeman embodies nothing else, it’s a cuddly old grandpa.
Not to worry, if the central portion of Unleashed isn’t enough to keep you from heckling for more blood, the action picks up full steam toward the end and crescendos into a remarkable finale with Danny’s erstwhile owners attempting to return him to the fold. The fighting in itself is some of the best work ever done by master choreographer Yuen Wo Ping; shockingly brutal, but never gratuitous.
Unleashed has managed to find the equilibrium that makes martial arts films jolly good entertainment. It takes its rather ridiculous premise and runs with it, neither looking back nor half-assing its efforts. Is this enough to make a truly great film? Nah. But for once, this ride is worth your money.
Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()