Danny (Jet Li) is a kung fu fighting attack-dog owned by Bob Hoskins' gangland loan-shark. When Danny's metal collar is taken off he makes mincemeat of late-payers and the neanderthals who Hoskins pits him against in underground fight contests. Brought up as a dog, Danny knows no other home, with only fleeting memories of a murdered mother. So when he meets blind piano player (Morgan Freeman) and his adopted daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon), and is treated kindly, Danny longs for a civilized life as a member of the human race. Only, Hoskins wants his doggy back.
This Luc Besson-scripted Euro-movie was originally titled Danny the Dog and they should have stuck with it. ‘Unleashed' suggests (as it's meant to) a hard-assed, all-out fight-fest. And there are some bone-crackingly brutal contests – probably Jet Li's best martial arts in a western movie. But if that's what you want, take note - this is really a fairytale with a sensitively handled character-study at its heart; a low-key reflection on civilization and the dead-end nature of violence.
Jet Li ( Hero, Once Upon a Time in China ), one of the best martial artists on the planet, surprises with a well-judged and affecting performance as Danny, a man kept as an animal and craving the humanity of family and friends. The support from a cruising Morgan Freeman is both solid and sweet. Danny's heavy-hitting, discordant life is contrasted with Freeman's soft-touch, piano-tuning family man. And surprisingly it works. Hoskins chews scenery as the caricature he's meant to be and Condon is effective as the beauty to the beast.
French director Louis Leterrier redeems himself for The Transporter by investing Unleashed with a visual grace and pacing that lifts it well out of the routine. Hiring martial arts maestro Yuen Woo Ping ( The Matrix, Kill Bill, Jet Li's Fist of Legend ) as choreographer was the masterstroke. For once we get to see what Jet Li is capable of. Some unnecessary quick-cutting aside, the action is inventively shot. Who but Yuen Woo Ping could stage one of the most impressive fights in film history solely in a toilet cubicle? See and believe. And you've got to admire the pluck of a movie which allows Jet Li to share a scene with distinguished Brit-thesp Phyllidia Law.
Besson's script isn't always subtle, and it skips too many plot-beats, but it's got warmth and humour. And he does love his innocent-abroad-in-a-world-of-violence storyline ( Leon, Kiss of the Dragon ). But if you can cope with bone-crunching fights and effluent language, as well as sentimentality and arthouse touches, then Unleashed is an unlikely success. It snarls and it snaps, but really it just wants to lick your hand. Awwww.