Saturday, May 14, 2005

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Graphic Martial-Arts Violence, Language, Brief (female) Nudity

Preconceived Notions: Jet Li gets to kick some butt as a killing machine.
The Bottom Line: Even the meanist dog has a heart.

Unleashed breaks a cardinal rule of action flicks. It has warmth and feelings. And that doesn't mean a horny throwaway sex scene, although that's nearly here. For this film, it's a man discovering a world outside his violent existence as somebody's bitch.

Yes, I used that word correctly. Okay, nearly correctly. The gender doesn't fit but everything else does. Li plays Danny, who's been turned into an attack dog -- right down to the collar he wears when he's not attacking somebody. He's fed like a dog, caged like a dog, and sicced on people like a dog. Bart is his master (Hoskins, in a deliciously evil role), a loan shark who bangs around Glasgow, Scotland, siccing Danny on anybody who hasn't paid up. When you don't pay up, the collar comes off, and Danny puts some serious hurt on you and whatever tough guys you throw at him.

For all Danny knows, he is a dog, with some fuzzy memories of the boy he once was. When the collar is on, he's not much different than a frightened puppy, laconic and shy of people. One day, Danny is standing around alone in an antique shop, surrounded by pianos, waiting for his gangster owners to sic him on somebody when he recconects with a memory from his past. In strides Sam, (Freeman) a blind piano tuner with a heart more golden than Fort Knox. He coaxes Johnny into helping him tune a piano, and soon, this dog will have his day as he's taken in to a new family.

The rest of the film is divided between fight scenes and warmth scenes. I'll not describe them for you only to say that the warmth scenes put the fight scenes in a different light. Usually in martial-arts films, you're rooting for the tough-guy hero to smash the bad guys to bits. That doesn't change, but with an ounce of humanity stirred into the mix, this film yields a pound of compassion, and the brutality emerges for what it is.

I'm reminded of what Rex Reed said about John Wayne in The Cowboys: "Old Dusty Britches can act." Well, Jet Li can act too. This may not be the role of his career, but it's certainly a notch above what I've seen from him so far. Somebody give him a shot at a film without the martial arts.

Parts of Unleashed come together a little too perfectly. It's annoying at times to watch Freeman have all the answers like Obi-Wan Kenobi. The characters also sidestep logicial decisions, such as maybe realizing Danny needs professional help when he hides under the bed and slurps his soup like a cocker spaniel. However, as Sam himself points out, he doesn't ask many questions. I didn't either.

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