directed by Louis Leterrier

starring Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon

Rogue Pictures

As someone who once dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, filmmaker Luc Besson is quite adept at taking fishes out of water. In La Femme Nikita, he snatched a borderline psychotic out of her criminal element, made her an assassin, and plunked her into a world that, at least on the surface, was comparatively normal. In The Professional, he popped a single-minded, sociopath hitman out of his protective bubble, thrust him into a situation that awakened his emotions, and ultimately prodded the cold-blooded killer to make decisions of the heart.

Writer-producer Besson again treads on familiar ground with his new film, Unleashed, by mixing bloody mayhem, unlikely heroes and poignant drama. However, with strong performances by veteran actors — including one of the most accomplished martial arts masters in the world, Jet Li — he has created a fresh, compelling film that will entertain a wide spectrum of viewers.

In Unleashed, perfectly-cast Bob Hoskins stars as Bart, a merciless Glasgow gangster with a lucrative protection racket. His enforcer? A man-child with a steel collar around his neck, Danny (Li), who was trained from early childhood to be a two-legged attack dog. The victim of vicious mind-control techniques, Danny is strangely docile while wearing his collar; when his master removes it, he instantly becomes an unstoppable killing machine. While not accompanying Uncle Bart on his villainous errands, Danny resides in a cage, eating cold food out of a can with his fingers and thumbing through kindergarten primers.

When some of Bart’s enemies riddle their car with lead one afternoon, Danny manages to escape. Wounded, he is rescued by a blind piano tuner, Sam (Morgan Freeman). Sam, a soft-spoken widower with compassion to spare, takes the stranger home, where he and his charming 18-year-old stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon, Angela’s Ashes) nurse Danny back to health.

With simple kindness, Sam and Victoria continue to extend their hospitality, asking no questions of their guest. In this foreign, benign environment, the still-collared street fighter begins to come out of his shell. The young woman, a gifted piano student, discovers that Danny has a natural aptitude for the piano, as well, and nurtures his interest in music. The pair become fast friends as Victoria introduces him to such ordinary delights as ice cream and Mozart. As one might predict, Danny’s violent past is bound to catch up with him; when it does, his new family’s lives are put in jeopardy.

On the action side of the coin, the fight sequences (co-created by legendary martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo Ping) are superb and take full advantage of Li’s seemingly superhuman physical abilities. Well-directed by former Besson apprentice Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), Unleashed is punctuated by tension-filled, inventive hand-to-hand combat scenes that eschew gravity-defying effects in favor of realism. One of the best clashes takes place in the cramped confines of a bathroom stall!

As Besson’s bloodshed quotient is a given, and Freeman’s and Hoskin’s talents are well-known, this film’s surprise is Li himself. Accustomed to primarily acting with his fists and feet, the Chinese national hero proves himself among his esteemed co-stars. Li convincingly portrays a victimized, haunted man of few words — but with an ever-increasing repertoire of facial expressions.

With a sublime score by Massive Attack, Unleashed flows well — perhaps too well. At roughly 95 minutes, the movie seems slightly abbreviated; another 10 minutes spent exploring the dynamics between Sam, Victoria and Danny could have further intensified the film’s edge-of-your-seat climax.

Unleashed is not in the same league as The Professional and La Femme Nikita; then again, those two modern classics occupy a lofty plateau. Nevertheless, this film is highly recommended, date-worthy, and deserving of a second look when it’s released on DVD.

Unleashed Movie: www.unleashedmovie.com

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