The conventions of the martial arts movie are fairly straightforward. The bad guys spend the first part of the movie behaving abominably, so that we will cheer when the hero finally administers the merciless beating they so richly deserve. The hero is spiritual, and sexually chaste, while the bad guys are degenerate and evil. Plot and character development are contrivances that serve only to propel the action forward. Nobody thinks to shoot the hero with a gun. Done well, it's a lot of fun to watch.
Jet Li is one of the best, and best known, martial artists working in film today. Now in his forties, he has been an international star since the 1991 Once Upon a Time in China. In his early Chinese films, which used no special effects, we see a marvelous athlete, a performer who blends martial arts, gymnastics, and ballet into a seamless, graceful spectacle. But Li wanted to work on a film that would transcend the genre constraints of the kung fu epic. He wanted a chance to act in a multi-dimensional role.
The results are mixed. Li's Danny has been conditioned by sensory deprivation and behavioral conditioning to behave like an attack dog. He is kept in a cage and fed scraps. He cringes like a dog as he follows his master, Bart (Hoskins) on his loan shark collections. When Bart removes Danny's dog collar Danny attacks with the single-mindedness of a pit bull, mauling those who are behind in their payments. When the carnage is complete he returns to his master, who replaces the collar. Once the collar is on, Danny is constrained and cowed.
For the character of Danny, Li chose to change his fighting style to reflect the way a dog would attack. Instead of dispatching multiple opponents with a punch here and a kick there, Danny focuses on one adversary at a time. Like a fighting dog, he latches on, oblivious of the others in the pack. Once finished with an opponent, he sets upon the next one. While the fight scenes show off Li's incredible speed and skill, they seem at times bit too contained. None the less, it's a clever variant.
The opening scenes of Unleashed are brutal, as in most martial arts movies. In the gritty alleys and basements of the Glasgow underworld, Danny is unleashed upon gangsters who refuse to pay up. Bob Hoskins returns to a version of the cockney mobster that made him famous in The Long Good Friday. His Bart is a bit over the top, as befits the genre, but he's a believably terrifying villain. The other bad guys are simple contrivances, and without Hoskins the evil side of this film would be no more compelling than a cartoon.
While on a job for Bart, Danny wanders into a basement where Sam, a blind piano tuner, is working. Sam (Freeman)is kind and patient as he tries to draw the autistic Danny into the world of music and conversation. Later on, Danny escapes Bart's control and finds Sam, who takes him home. There, Danny meets Sam's charming, vivacious step-daughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), an enchanting innocent. She is the polar opposite of the brutal gangsters who have turned Danny into a killer. The color and texture of the film change from a cold, gray grittiness, to warm tones of oak paneling and comfortably stuffed chairs. The change is a bit extreme, and it as though we have left the movie to see another one in the adjoining theatre.
Hard-core action fans may not know what to make of this interlude where the terrified, introverted Danny is patiently coaxed out of his emotionally circumscribed existence. He hides in corners and under the bed as Sam and Victoria try to lure him with food and kind words. Danny behaves like an abused mongrel that has been rescued from the pound, which is the effect he was striving for. Without Morgan Freeman's tremendous presence, these scenes would have fallen flat, but Freeman could read from the tax codes and move us. To his credit, he gives the role his all, and it shows. Taking their cues from Freeman, Condon and Li pull off this unlikely scenario fairly well.
Bart and his evil minions could have left well enough alone at this point. But no! They just can't let Danny be. Danny, who has forsworn violence, must eventually administer the requisite beatings. This theme has underpinned many a western. In films like Shane and High Noon, we could have it both ways. The hero is a peaceful, decent man who wants no trouble from anyone. We like people like that, but they aren't very much fun to watch for two hours. When the bad guys just won't relent, our kindhearted hero lets them have it with a vengeance. Then he goes back to being a nice guy again. At least that's how it was before anti-heroes like Clint Eastwood turned the western on its head.
The traditional martial arts film has been more like High Noon than A Fistful of Dollars. The hero is usually a practitioner of some mystic Eastern religion that requires spiritual discipline—which just happens to make him one heck of a fighting man. Unleashed is the kung fu version. Danny is spiritual in his core, but that spirituality has been all but extinguished by abuse and conditioning. After the final outburst of cleansing violence, we know that Danny will be free to live a peaceful existence.
To appreciate Unleashed. we must work particularly hard at suspending our disbelief. Martial arts require great intelligence, focus, and discipline. It's hard to imagine how Danny, being chained up most of the time and eating out of cans, manages to reach such a pinnacle of physical and psychological brilliance. The behaviorist John Watson believed that every child was a blank slate, and that a skilled psychologist could shape that child into any variant of a human being he wanted. The Chinese communists believed that they could condition prisoners of war, through brainwashing, to embrace Chairman Mao. History has proven them wrong. The Jesuits say, "Show me the child and I'll give you the man," but they do not believe that they can create the man, only that they can teach and nurture what God has made. It's another way of saying, "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it."
Unleashed begins with an intriguing, if unfulfilled premise. It could have been an interesting film for teenagers who are wrestling with issues of meaning and destiny. The scenes with Freeman, Condon and Li could be seen as a metaphor for spiritual and psychological healing. It wouldn't have been a great film, but it could have been a fairly good one. Unfortunately, this story of redemption is unnecessarily offensive. Bart tries to have sex with a prostitute while others watch. In a frantic final battle, Danny and a hired assassin break in on a woman taking a shower. It's as though the filmmakers couldn't quite decide what film they were trying to make.
Unleashed tries to create an original variant on an overworked genre. Morgan Freeman is better than his role, and Hoskins is a powerful presence. Li almost pulls off a psychologically complex role. But the in the end, Unleashed is a muddled film.Discussion starters
- How possible is it to remake the human spirit?
- Can you think of examples where a person's will has been completely broken?
- How possible is it for a broken spirit to be healed?
- Can the theme of a peaceful man, driven to violence and retribution, be compared to the concept of a just war?
- Why do some filmmakers use a fusion of sex and violence to achieve a psychological mood?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The violence in Unleashed is stylized but the film earns its R-rating for language, degrading sexuality and nudity.
Photos © Copyright Rogue Picturescompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 05/19/05
Danny (Jet Li) has been conditioned to work as a human attack dog, and when he's Unleashed, you'd better watch out. But this martial arts movie aspires to be about more than action. It's about a hyperviolent hero who yearns to escape his cruel past and become a peaceful, free human being. Of course, in order to break free from his current life, he'll have to do a lot of damage.
Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Unleashed begins with an intriguing, if unfulfilled premise. It could have been an interesting film for teenagers who are wrestling with issues of meaning and destiny. It wouldn't have been a great film, but it could have been a fairly good one. Unfortunately, this story of redemption is unnecessarily offensive. It's as though the filmmakers couldn't quite decide what film they were trying to make."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Stylishly directed with an intentional gritty look, themes addressed include the depersonalizing effects of cruelty, the healing power of love, the malleability of young minds for good or evil, and the nature of free will. It is precisely this depth that elevates Unleashed above the standard mindlessness of most action films."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "This might have been a poignant story. Leterrier would have needed a better screenwriter. Besson has loaded this story with improbabilities and absurdities … [and] has also made his characters utterly stupid when it's convenient for the story. Unleashed can be easily summarized thus: Human kindness good. Hatred and violence bad. File under 'Duh!' and save yourself two hours of hokey storytelling and senseless mayhem."
Mainstream critics are divided. Some think it's "a watchable experiment" while others want to put Li back on a leash.