Here we go again, sort of. Jet Li plays a reluctant warrior; Bob Hoskins a foul-mouthed, lunatic gangster (in Glasgow, no less, to allow for Snatch-ish subcultural extremities); and Morgan Freeman a wise and patient mentor. But for all its familiarity, Unleashed offers something else too. An exceedingly perverse combination of melodrama, martial arts conventions, and a couple of sly twists on both formulas, the movie slips into and out of expectations quickly, barely giving you time to recognize one tricked-out trope before it’s on to the next and back again.
Of course, the fights are fabulous. At once ferocious and delicate, brilliantly choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping and inventively shot by Pierre Morel (who also worked on writer-producer Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc), these scenes are like dance numbers, exquisite bits of business that actually move the emotional story rather than stop it cold. The set pieces include one where adversaries battle in a narrow bathroom stall, heads and limbs pressed up with barely room to turn around, let alone slam each other’s heads into walls, and another couple in an underground fighting arena, Jet Li facing down fighters with leather vests and giant hammers. In all cases, he is breathtaking and his opponents are gnarly. All is right with this world. That is, if you take it on its own terms.
And that is all that Unleashed asks. It’s a crazed and brutal treat, thoughtful and even occasionally clever, combing clichés and challenges in a way that suggests its makers have seen more than their share of genre films. Though not quite satire, it does poke snarky fun at its own legacy, not so frantic or joyous as Kung Fu Hustle, but equally eccentric and po-mo in its own way.
The story is basic and horrific: long imprisoned (since he was a child) and much abused, Danny (Jet Li) lives a life of unquiet desperation. Collared and caged by the gruesome Bart (Hoskins), Danny is subdued almost to the point of catatonia until Bart decides he wants a client to pay up, whereupon he removes the collar, narrows his eyes, and purses his lips as he instructs his “dog” to “Get ’em!” (Bart is an extraordinary villain, thoughtlessly abusing minions, whores, and Danny with daunting relish.) Attack mode is all the release that Danny knows, though even in these moments, he’s sociopathically removed from his own responses: he doesn’t acknowledge the lives he takes or even seem to hear the bones he crushes and necks he snaps. Instead, he throws himself into the physicality of the motion, free for moments, hurling, kicking, targeting. And then he’s done, and trotting along behind his master once again.
When Danny at last breaks free — accidentally, after Bart’s car is shot up by enemies and Danny believes him to be dead — he is taken in by a blind piano tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman). Living in Glasgow so his strangely childish 18-year-old stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) can attend music school, New Yorker Sam appreciates the sensitivity he senses in the reticent and musically inclined Danny. The three form what they call a “family,” mutually reinforcing true believers in what the ad copy calls the “power” of music.
It’s a fairy tale, punctuated by broken bones and bloodied faces. And inside it, Jet Li is yet again the asexual Asian male, drawn to Victoria who is also crushing on him, but also limited by their different forms of utter childishness. Not unlike Besson’s other films — The Professional comes to mind — the child barely aware of sexual desire sublimates his (or her) urges into ferocious violence.
As spastic and strange as all this sounds, the film makes a moral sort of sense of it. Danny is a flat-out fantasy character — poetically naïve and trained to kill like an animal. This makes his aggression — so visceral and brutal in the film’s stop- and slow-motion, time lapse speediness, and Matrix-ish wirework — a function of his abuse, not a sign of his lapsed character. This means that Danny can eventually feel guilt and even remorse, but not so much that he must be punished, as this previous career is surely penalty enough. Within this context, the film goes out on a very long limb, weaving a tale of betrayal and revenge that would impress Tarantino.
Chief among the traumas Danny must recover among his route to relative mental health is what happened to his beautiful, softly filtered, piano-playing mother. When he remembers that she was murdered in front of him (the reason remains unclear), Danny is overwhelmed with grief and rage. And so the film lays out his dilemma — will he be the loving son he has learned to be with Sam (or, as Sam has it, has always been, despite the body count on his resume) or will he be the vengeful son trained by Bart? Sociopathogical vengeance is more basically cinematic, but Jet LI also wants to show off some acting ability: and so the camera comes in close to his face and he does some acting. He no longer wants to “hurt people,” he says, just before he’s forced to throw down a mini-army of villains. (“That’s what you do,” snarls Bart, “You hurt people.”)
So okay, it’s a Jet Li movie after all. And inside its turns to zen and inner peace by way of a Mozart sonata, the film even raises a few worthwhile questions concerning identity, memory, and the effects of abuse. Danny survives because he’s a killer, but he also pays for it. Brutal and bizarre, Unleashed is also peculiarly moving.