Monday, May 16, 2005

Unleashed: a fable of mind over matter

When I first saw the poster for Jet Li’s latest film Unleashed, I had absolutely no desire to see it. It isn’t that I dislike action or martial arts movies, I just haven’t been impressed with the recent slew of Jet Li movies, Cradle 2 the Grave (Li’s outing with DMX), The One, or Kiss of the Dragon.

So when a couple friends of mine asked me if I had seen the trailer for Unleashed, and told me they thought it looked good, I scoffed them a bit. I’ll be the first one to admit that I was acting a bit presumptuously and pretentiously making by making broad sweeping generalizations about lower budget action films and Jet Li movies in general.

But then I finally saw the trailer for Unleashed, (and would continue to see it many times over as the ARCLIGHT ran it constantly before all their screenings) and was actually intrigued. When I went to see the film last night, I was happy to find that the trailer did not misrepresent the film, nor had it lifted my expectations unrealistically high. I had gone in there expecting to see an entertaining, interesting and unique twist on the martial arts genre, and that is exactly what I saw.

The concept of Unleashed is quite compelling. It is the story of a young man, Danny, portrayed by Jet Li who has been kept in captivity all his life by a Bart, a loan shark and gangster played by the normally bumbling and innocuous Bob Hoskins. But it isn’t just that Bart has kept Danny away from the outside world, he has completely brainwashed him. Bart, who has been in custody of Danny since he was a small child has completely brainwashed him into believing he is no more than an attack dog. Danny wears a metal doglike collar around his neck at almost all times. His behavior is muted and docile, devoid of anything but the most basic of human instincts: fear, exhaustion, hunger. It is when Bart removes Danny’s collar and whispers in his ear to “get ‘em” that a brutal and unstoppable force of violence becomes unleashed. Danny has been so “well trained” that he has a near Pavlovian response when he is ordered by Bart to accost someone. No individual thought processes, desires, or concerns intervene, he merely proceeds to annihilate his targets with his extreme strength and martial arts skills. What makes Danny’s life as this “dog” all the more fascinating is that his leash is psychological. The collar he wears is not actually attached to anything, and it is only in his mind that he is bound to Bart and his life of servitude. I like the idea of mental chains being stronger than metal ones. It touches upon the philosophical idea that the most powerful prisons are the ones that are constructed by our beliefs rather than our physical surroundings.

As the film progresses, we see how lethal yet detached Danny can behave when “let loose” on people. But we also see that beneath his beaten down exterior there is longing and loneliness. His childlike qualities are accentuated by the two personal items that he keeps in the cage where he is forced to live, a teddy bear and a children’s book. There are some very bittersweet moments when we see him looking at the pictures that illustrate words of which he has no understanding: Love, Kiss, and Family.

The turning point in the film occurs when after a freak accident Danny is able to escape from his captors. Danny seeks out a piano tuner whom he had befriended by chance earlier in the movie. The piano tuner, Sam, played by Morgan Freeman, is a blind but kindly man, who takes Danny into his home, where he lives with his eighteen year old stepdaughter, Victoria. Here Danny learns of the possibility of life without violence and the power of free will to make one’s own choices.

Jet Li does well in the role of Danny, a man whose soul has been siphoned through the constricts of enslavement. He manages to portray both the deadly killer, and the innocent naivete with equal grace. The only element which I found to be a bit distracting was Mr. Li’s age. The actor is 42 years old, but the character seems like someone who would be in their late 20’s, 30 at oldest. The filmmakers were pushing it a little bit by asking the audience to believe that Li was a decade or so younger in the film than he actually is. I actually found this a little bit with Stephen Chow in Kung Fu Hustle, who is pushing 45, but is supposed to be playing a younger man who is just discovering himself.

The other performances in the film were all very good. Bob Hoskins, who I will forever think of as Eddie Valient in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Smee in Hook, shatters the image of the harmless and silly “old softy” and creates a horrible, nasty villain with the role of Bart. The brief moments of vulnerability that were given to Bart’s character by screenwriter Luc Besson and director Louis Leterrier mixed with his heartless cruelty make him despicably pathetic yet frightening.

Morgan Freeman’s sweet wisdom and humble self-effacing kindness as Sam make him a wonderful contrast to Hoskin’s morally repulsive Bart. Victoria Condon, as Sam’s stepdaughter Victoria, successfully achieves bright and chirpy without entering the realm of irritating.

Overall, I thought Unleashed’s screenplay was very well written. Luc Besson, who wrote Unleashed and also produced it, has done a variety of other films both French and American, including The Professional, The Fifth Element, and most recently The Transporter. Besson crafted characters that were multi-faceted and had depth. The pacing and plot development felt natural and carried the story along in a way that felt both organic and cogent. I felt as though the film spent just enough time in each act of the movie – Danny living with Bart, Danny escaping Bart and going to live with Sam and Victoria, and Danny resolving the conflict between the two worlds.

Director Louis Leterrier added further dimension to the film with his diverse camera sensibilities, and visually resonant edits. However, Unleashed was only his second film, his debut having been the Transporter, and his lack of experience showed in small moments, where atmosphere and attention to detail were not all that they could have been. Still I think he had a natural ability to tell the visual components of the story, and am curious to if his future work will have the screws tightened even a bit more.

One of the only other things that prevented this film from bridging the gap from good to great, was the inclusion of the "death match" plot line. I realize that Besson included it to give Bart even further reason to chase after Danny once he had gone, but it felt contrived, and too convenient that he would stumble across such a thing so inadvertently. It seems to me either, the death match fighting should have been the status quo for Danny from the beginning, or he should have left it out altogether.

Unleashed was a nice melding of a martial arts film and an emotional drama, and had metaphors and symbolism in the film that worked. I thought the piano was a great choice for a musical instrument because it encompassed many of the qualities that Danny had. It’s hard wooden exterior protects the ethereal music that could come from the inside. It is hard, yet soft, powerful, yet weak, and when not taken care of becomes a distortion of its true self. It was interesting to watch Danny learn how to tune himself from animal back to human, and how to channel his artistic abilities from brutalization to peaceful endeavor. Jet Li/Danny’s journey from a life of enslaved violence to one of free will is as endearing as it is engaging.

All in all, Unleashed is the uncommon charming solid action film that hits the mark not only with its visceral fight scenes, but also with its emotional milestones.


Blogger Elliot said...

Bob Hoskins has in recent years not had many good roles it is true.
To call him bumbling and innocuous is pretty unfair though.
Many of his early roles had him playing extremely hard, tough, dangerous people - something he did very well.
This is the man who played Mussolini, don't forget.
But yes - it's been a long time since he's done much that's really good.

6:03 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I didn't mean bumbling in a bad way, I meant bumbling in a sort of sweet endearing way. I've always liked Bob Hoskins, and was pleased to see him in a roll that has been unlike his recent outings.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

Well that's ok then!

7:09 PM  

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