Luc Besson famously wrote his original screenplay for The Fifth Element when he was in high school. Since The Fifth Element was produced in 1997, he's directed one movie, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, and written and produced several, including the Taxi films, Wasabi, The Transporter (and the upcoming The Transporter 2), and Jet Li's Kiss of the Dragon, passing all of them to other directors. Though he turned 46 this year, Besson is still writing like a high-schooler, and Unleashed provides enough evidence to suggest that Besson's cast-off screenplays will never have much to offer.
Jet Li plays Danny, a feral attack "dog" wielded by a Glasgow criminal named Bart (Bob Hoskins). Bart's a collector and enforcer for the mob, but mostly talks shit, sits back, and smiles while Danny does all the work ("The master commands and the dog obeys!"). When the "work day" is over, Bart takes his collared pet to underground ultimate fights, removes his collar, and sics him on the unsuspecting competition.
Everything changes when Danny finds himself unexpectedly free of Bart's clutches. Taken in by a kindly blind piano tuner (reigning "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar winner Morgan Freeman), the wide-eyed, child-like Danny opens up to the world around him, especially the piano tuner's stepchild Victoria (Kerry Condon, sporting geeky braces). Here's where Li gets to turn on the sweet charm, learning to eat ice cream and generally responding to the kindness of his new friends. It's an acting gamble that reinforces Li's ability but nevertheless plays like a humiliation meant to dodge Li's limited English skills.
In nearly every way, Unleashed is a remake of The Elephant Man, with a gentle primitive exploited, for money and sadism, by a low-class British showman (Hoskins grins and growls, "Get 'em young and the possibilities are endless"). Like John Merrick, Danny gets care from a mentor, needs to understand about his mother, and finds himself back in the clutches of his exploiter. The difference, of course, is that Danny kicks ass, martial-arts-style.
As choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, Li's quicksilver acrobatics have a particularly vicious edge to them here (aided by whiz-bang editing and musically accompanied by Massive Attack and the RZA). The fights feel fleeting, though (and certainly joyless), as Besson's script focuses on obvious, utterly predictable manipulations, mostly photographed in dim and dusty green-tinged tones for director Louis Letterier (The Transporter, The Transporter 2). In Letterier's defense, the picture moves along nicely, and the preview audience with whom I saw the film gasped and emitted "Oh!"s on cue from the brutal moves.
Freeman's incapable of a bad performance, but he did himself no favors by taking a role that gives him so few opportunities to show his stuff. Okay, he makes you believe he can't see, and helps you to hear lines like "A piano's a lot like people—you pound on a piano, it goes out of tune" without retching, but that's about it. His character also awakens Danny to Mozart's "Sonata No. 11 in A Major," which is good for a little culture. In cultural terms, Besson obvously intends to revive Victorian melodrama here, with the Dickensian trials of a poor shackled martial artist, but save your great expectations for the next summer action movie.