Poor Jet Li. After a star turn as the villain of “Lethal Weapon 4”, he looked all set to break into the US market in the same way Jackie Chan had done a year earlier with “Rush Hour”. Seven years and four horrible action films later, he’s no closer to that target. Even “Unleashed”, a Scottish-set French-produced production which is finally getting a theatrical release in the US, won’t bring him American stardom even though its easily his most original English-language film yet.
Veering wildly in tone, “Unleashed” is part British gangster movie, Chinese martial arts actioneer and touching sentimental drama about a kind old blind man and his daughter adopting a mentally retarded adult. As a result its one hell of a tough film to market because fans of any one of these three types of movies rarely is a fan of the two other. Action fans will love the hardcore fights which are simplistic yet brutal with Li doing his usual graceful aerobatic martial arts against any number of foes.
It all thankfully avoids using wire-fu, opting for something more like street brawling and one ‘pit fight’ which gets quite nasty with sledgehammers and a woman getting her head thumped repeatedly. There’s also a quite awesomely shot mano-e-mano fight between Li and a bald guy that makes its way across rooftops, power cables, through a marble statue carver’s den and right into a bathroom complete with naked screaming girl taking a shower.
Director Louis Leterrier opts for bleakness over style with the production looking visibly more weary, lower budget and lacking that flashy finish that his previous US flicks have sparkled with. Yet for a film like this with a simple little moral tale intertwined with gangland violence, the style effectively works. Adding to it is a solid cast including Hoskins dripping with pig-headed menace and single-minded determination and of course Freeman.
It’s the scenes with Freeman that’ll split audiences. Completely separate from the rest of the movie, the film follows this tangent of the kindly blind piano player adopting this simple minded man who can barely speak. Along the way blooms a very innocently played romance with Freeman’s daughter (a nice little turn by Kerry Condon) and a warm and growing almost paternal bond between Freeman and Li. It’s rare we get to see the former be so affectionate or the later portray a soft human innocent side but both are welcome and enjoyable even if the writing is decidedly cliche and cloying.
Certain elements are odd, such as the whole collar thing which is rather strange and a little difficult to understand at first. The odd pacing, which swaps between manic fights and quite brutal street politics to a sentimental almost child-rearing tale that’s almost a Hallmark made for TV movie in its softness, will throw a lot of people off. Ditto the unrelenting grimness and lack of polish which gives it a whole working class feel. This won’t convert new fans to Li, but will go some way to pleasing those let down by the likes of the woeful “Cradle 2 the Grave” and “The One.”