THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"UNLEASHED"

Unleashed is one of the most unusual action movies I’ve ever seen, but then again, that’s part of what makes it so interesting. Jet Li plays “Danny the Dog,” a man who was raised like an animal since childhood by Bart (Bob Hoskins), the Scottish loan shark who murdered his mother. Bart trained Danny to be a lean, mean killing machine by – among other things - chaining him up in a dingy basement and forcing him to wear a dog collar. Whenever someone fails to pay Bart back, he simply removes Danny’s collar and gives the command to kill. There’s a definite Pavlovian response: Danny is calm when the collar is on, but as soon as it comes off he springs into deadly action.

One afternoon, while on a collection mission, Danny meets a blind piano tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman). Although Sam does all the talking, the two form a tentative bond. Then events conspire to unexpectedly set Danny free. Sam agrees to take him into the home he shares with step-daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). Although they have a policy about not intruding into other people’s personal affairs, Sam and Victoria are extremely curious about their new housemate, who says very little, hides under the bed, and flinches whenever someone tries to touch the metal collar he wears around his neck.

For a time, I wasn’t sure that I liked Unleashed. The initial scenes have a dreary, grimy look to them. It feels as though the movie was shot in the dirtiest parts of the city that the filmmakers could find (and to good effect, I might add). We see Danny being set loose upon his hapless victims in orgies of violence. We also see Bart manipulating Danny, taunting him, and emotionally brutalizing him. It’s all very compelling, exciting stuff. But then, after Danny moves in with Sam and Victoria, the tone of the film changes. Victoria teaches him how to eat ice cream (and, subsequently, how to conquer “brain freeze”). Sam teaches Danny how to pick out a ripe melon. The three characters turn into a big, happy, loving family. It all seemed somewhat overdone to me. Surely, I thought, there must be a way to show the change in Danny’s environment without having the film go all “Little House on the Prairie” on us. Right?

Around the time that I was having this thought (and inwardly grumbling that the hard-edged picture had gone too soft), Danny was unexpectedly drug back into his former life, forced to fight in violent death matches. He no longer wanted to kill, but had to just to stay alive. The death matches are over-the-top in their brutality, making the WWE look like a Punch & Judy show. I then realized that Unleashed was making a conscious stylistic choice. The scenes of Danny living in the seedy underbelly of Glasgow are just as exaggerated as the scenes of domestic bliss with Sam and Victoria. By taking both worlds to the extreme, the film calls attention to Danny’s disparate existence. Once this realization set in, I began to understand – and, more importantly, really enjoy – the movie. Danny sees two sides of life that are polar opposites. His choice of one over the other is made more interesting because he understands the full potential of both.

Unleashed explores the age-old question of nature versus nurture and comes down pretty squarely on the side of nurture. If you’re surrounded by people who love and care for you, the film seems to say, you have a better shot at decency than you would if you were raised in a lifestyle of violence and hatred. That is perhaps something less than an earth-shaking revelation, but I liked how the movie showed the principal in action. Too many pictures in this genre give no real weight to the concepts of good and evil; most of them are merely excuses for a lot of bone-snapping and head-bashing. Unleashed at least makes a basic attempt at taking good and evil seriously.

The action/fighting scenes are skillful and intense, and the performances are a lot better than the genre usually provides. Jet Li and Morgan Freeman are just about the oddest screen couple you could imagine, but they have a surprising chemistry. The show is stolen, however, by Bob Hoskins, who gives his most energetic and charismatic performance in years. The actor seemed to have faded to the sidelines recently but he comes roaring back to life here. Hoskins plays Bart with villainous glee; you know this is one evil dude, yet you can’t take your eyes off him. Unleashed, while by no means a great film, at least has some ambition in its storytelling, its style, and its performances. I wish more movies in the genre would follow suit.

( out of four)


Unleashed is rated R for strong violent content, language and some sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

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