on May 13, 2005 by Wade Major
Since they began their peculiar writing partnership with 1997's "The Fifth Element," screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen ("The Karate Kid") and French action auteur Luc Besson have collaborated on three more English-language films, all of them quasi-Hong Kong martial arts pictures with a European twist. The first two, however, proved to be considerably less than what one would expect of such an alliance--"Kiss of the Dragon," starring Jet Li, was a narratively convoluted style-fest that failed to properly showcase Li's abilities, while the marginally better "The Transporter," starring Jason Statham and Shu Qi and directed by longtime Jet Li choreographer Corey Yuen, ran aground on a reef of action chestnuts. Impressively, "Unleashed" seems finally to have gotten the two into a proper groove. Again starring Jet Li, it almost perfectly meshes the best of Kamen's and Besson's sensibilities, borrowing liberally from both "The Karate Kid" and Besson's "The Professional" with a healthy helping of Peter Weir's "Witness" for good measure.

Also known by its original title, "Danny the Dog," "Unleashed" stars Li as Danny, a veritable human attack dog "owned" by a ruthless London mobster named Bart (Bob Hoskins). Enslaved from childhood and conditioned to kill without conscience whenever his collar is removed, Danny is as childlike as he is lethal, almost binary in behavior. When he's not turning Tasmanian Devil on a room full of baddies, he's as docile and curious as a puppy. So when a retaliatory hit liberates him from Bart's captivity, it's the puppy that takes over, leading Danny to Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind American piano tuner living in London while his young ward, Victoria (Kerry Condon), studies at a London conservatory. It would sound like a ragtag, makeshift family cliché -- the white orphan, the old black blind man and the Chinese killer -- if not for the fact that in every conceivable way, it feels absolutely authentic. So when the inevitable intrusion of Li's "old life" finally arrives, the stakes and the emotional investment couldn't be higher.

Freeman's Homeric heft instantly lends the film far more credibility and resonance than it would ordinarily merit, lending residual support to Li's surprisingly nuanced characterization of what probably shouldn't have been much more than a live-action cyberpunk cartoon. Condon and Hoskins get the least interesting parts--the jeopardized waif and the sadistic mobster, roles they could both probably sleep through--but like Freeman and Li, they flesh them out with compelling depth and believability.

Director Louis Leterrier, a former production assistant on Besson's "The Messenger," is solid, if not remarkable, in his debut, faring markedly better than previous Besson protégés by allowing choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping of "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame ample latitude in staging the action. Longtime Li fans will naturally welcome Yuen's fresh and free-wheeling set pieces, though there will continue to be lingering regret that Corey Yuen was never granted comparable latitude on his previous Hollywood films with Li.

Though "Unleashed" aspires to more than the usual genre fare, it's being released through Universal's upstart genre division Rogue Pictures, suggesting that the Universal folks don't quite realize what they have. Hopefully, audience word of mouth will help earn the picture the broad appeal it so rightly deserves. Starring Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins and Kerry Condon. Directed by Louis Leterrier. Written by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson. Produced by Luc Besson and Pierre-Ange Le Pogam. A Rogue release. Action-Drama. Rated R for strong violent content, language and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 102 min

Tags: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon, Louis Leterrier, Robert Mark Kamen, Luc Besson, London, developmentally disabled, animal, martial arts, gangster, mobster, crime, family drama, escape

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