Characters in most movies, and especially action movies, only talk about the plot. No dialogue is spoken that does not forward the story or has little chance of being blurbed, quoted, repeated, or included in the trailer. Not so in Unleashed, where between the kinetic, well-staged action scenes, the characters converse about and pontificate on such diverse things as fruit, food, Freud, piano recitals, and other topics. The protagonist is nearly silent, but many of the people around him are literate and articulate; even the villain, unceasingly brutal and decked out in a white suit and tie, has a way with words and a feel for turns of phrase.
And still the movie, directed by Louis Leterrier, whose somewhat acclaimed The Transporter I have not seen, maintains a feverish pace and can be minimalist when it has to, accomplishing a great deal with only a few lines or shots. It has a flair for introducing increasingly baroque elements — Tournament fights to the death! With weapons! — while maintaining a clear, if not necessarily familiar, emotional grounding; its story of a man rediscovering his humanity and fighting his former masters after being raised as a dog is straightforward, direct and effective.
This is ostensibly the film where Jet Li becomes an Actor as opposed to “merely” a world-renowned action star. His role is not demanding, but difficult to pull off really well; this fish-out-of-water stuff threatens to become massively cloying when it persists for more than a few minutes, and indeed, when Danny the Former Dog learns to distinguish ripe melons from unripe ones by the sound they make and proceeds to do this with utter fascination several times over, it becomes a little much. Li does more pouting than anything else, though he has a few nice moments (“Sweet is good!”); his saving grace is the fact that the screenplay inevitably springs into action before his attempts at emoting can truly begin to grate.
Recently I have found myself complaining more than usual about the writing in mainstream films, but here is one — a martial arts flick, no less — where the script is not just serviceable, but downright good by most standards. The characters think and reason; watch the way the Morgan Freeman character — a blind piano tuner — deduces that something is wrong by noticing Danny’s reaction (or non-reaction) to a fight in the grocery store, and listen to their exchange afterward; it’s clever, subtle, and it says so much. The movie is careful with its themes, working in generalities like “family” but nourishing them into something genuine. It is not surprising that the screenwriter is Luc Besson, who has long had a knack for bringing a human dimension to the grandiose and the exaggerated.
Not to be forgotten is Bob Hoskins, who gives an incomparably gung-ho performance as the fearsome Bart, loan shark extraordinaire as well as Danny the Dog’s cruel master. It is not surprising that elite character actors like Hoskins occasionally pick a project like this one; he gets to stomp around in a white suit, growl “Get ’em!” into Jet Li’s ear, and eventually get himself beaten up. I love actors who are willing to give their all to a role like this, abandon all thoughts of dignity and plunge themselves into grime and chaos. It’s awesome.
The film’s last twenty minutes are fairly amazing, beginning with some world-class martial arts action — and yes, Unleashed absolutely kicks ass when the time is right — and concluding with a series of images that packs an unexpected emotional punch. Leterrier makes sparing, masterful use of flashbacks here, artfully editing them in and juxtaposing them quite beautifully with the often chaotic present day goings-on. And how wonderful that the final showdown is not a dumb, meaningless shoot-out or brawl, but a battle for the protagonist’s soul. This is a rarity: a thoughtful, surprising film wholly within the martial arts genre.