I'd frankly expected Unleashed; aka, Danny the Dog (2005) to be another Jet Li film like a lot of others given modern settings, which I like because Jet Li's pretty cool, but which rarely aspire to anything more than action impact. I thought it might be a tad better than usual due to an amazing support cast.
What I got instead of the usual good but predictable product was an artful well-acted story all but unexpected of a violent-fight-action picture. In fact, what Edward Scissorhands was for suburban fables, Danny the Dog is for urban fables.
Scripted & produced by Luc Besson who wrote The Transporter films (2002 & 2005) & The Fifth Element (1998), & helmed by Transporter & Fifth Element director Louis Leterrie, this is essentially a French action-thriller done in English & filmed in Scotland, not a Hong Kong action quickie.
The unbelievable premise comes off much more magic realist than comic book, & Jet Li's performance at times approaches that of the miraculous Bruno S. as the titular character in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974).
Jet as Danny is a martial arts whiz who was raised by a gangster boss to be an attack dog, living like a dog, obedient to his "owner."
Between ferocious outings makes Danny live in a cage. Danny is used as a very threatening weapon of debt collection.
He's been trained to remain docile when his collar is on. Remove the collar & command him to attack, he fights. Command him to kill, he kills. Between the modes of docility & attack, he appears to have become so emotionally & socially shut down as to have no personality or response to anything.
But on some level he's still the small child he was when the gangster, his "uncle" Bart (Bob Hoskins), got his hands on him. When in docility mode he has the sweetness of a child, or a dog that likes to look out the window of a moving car.
A greater intelligence is locked up inside him. When in his cage with his all-too-few momentos of another, lost life, he conveys the deepest tragedy.
This is a remarkable role for Jet Li because he really does possess a legitimate sweetness as a man & as an actor, & of course he really is a masterful martial artist.
We see more of the actor in him than is usually permitted of his action performances.
Bresson wrote this script with Jet Li in mind & it is truly tailored to his varied skills as a screen presence. But the role of gangster Uncle Bart was originally intended for Anthony Hopkins, who bowed out of the project & was not easily replaced.
It's odd to think Bob Hoskins wasn't the first choice, as no way could Sir Anthony hissing like Hannibal the Cannibal be anything but a parody of a gangster, & other choices like Michael Caine & Brian Cox sound absolutely guaranteed to have been workmanlike & adequate but nothing more.
Hoskins, however, really embraces the role. Even though the character as written isn't a very likely chap to exist, he makes Bart as real as he made the gang boss Harold in his first great role for The Long Good Friday (1980).
Hoskins & Li both turn in spectacular performances. Morgan Freeman as Sam the piano tuner turns in the rote Morgan Freeman ultimate-good-grampa performance which he's done so often I no longer think of him as a good actor but only as the ultimate-good-grampa. He's a one-character sort of guy, but he's exactly what's needed here.
Li also gets a love-interest in Sam's cute & nurdy step-daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon), though to be sure they act more like brother & sister. Condon does a fine job & is a great heroine who never quite descends into standard-issue damsel in distress, let alone T & A ingredient, having instead actual character.
A sinister figure who organizes secret uderground boxing matches "to the death" saw Danny in action while Bart was on his debt collecting rounds. He offers the gangster huge sporting monies to enter his dog in the pit fights.
At the first fight, Bart takes off Danny's collar & gives him the command to kill the leather-clad giant who has never known defeat. Danny kills him in two swift blows to the throat.
Bart is thrilled by the plan to use Danny in series of death matches that will earn millions. Before another fight can be arranged, however, Bart & his crew are mowed down by a rival gang, & Danny is accidentally set free.
He sets out to find the one man who had given him a taste of what it meant to be a human being, the blind piano tuner Sam, to learn to love, to learn compassion, even just to learn to use a fork & spoon, sleep in a bed, & regain a sense of free will.
It is the way of such stories of "humanity & violence" to teach a mindless slayer humanity so that he no longer wants to hurt people, but then for the sake of those he newly loves, he must be forced to be again taht which he once was.
The ultimate version of this story was an episode of The Outer Limits with Michael Ansera as Soldier (1964), scripted by Harlan Ellison from his 1957 short story.
Bred in a laboratory to be nothing, ever, but a soldier, Qarlo is caught in a time warp torn open by futuristic weapons.
This propels him back to the 1960s where he is at first put in the nuthouse. But soon he is living with a suburban family, with whom he learns to care about his life & the lives of others.
No sooner is he fully transformed into a peace-loving human being than the "enemy" comes through the same time portal & Qarlo must revert to what he was to save those he newly loves.
This story was cribbed shamelessly & reformed as The Terminator (1981), but at subtler levels Harlans science fiction fable has seeped into so many stories & films that it is just about part of the cultural consciousness of even those who never saw it.
It's a predictable sort of tale, but when done well, it's a great one. And Danny the Dog is in part that same Soldier.
As it happens Uncle Bart survived the hail of bullets on that day when Danny was liberated. Now Bart is bringing him back to his old life. And with Sam & Victoria in the background easily threatened, Danny is slow to rebel. But he is also by now so changed that he can never fully be what Bart demands him to be.
For the film's final reel it is pretty much nonstop mayhem. But it by no means gives up on its fascinating story elements, because Danny still has to learn his true origins, needs through the piano music he adores to regain memories of his mother, & make the ultimate free will choice of killing for the first time because he wants to (out of revenge) or not at all because he has the chance to be a decent man.
It's rare films like this one that sustain my faith that even a violent action film can tell a great story with great characters.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl