Thursday, January 12, 2006

UNLEASHED - UNRATED

Jet Li is an astounding martial artist, with over 35 films to his credit, going back to the late Seventies. His most recently released flick, UNLEASHED (a/k/a DANNY THE DOG, 2005) is a great little B movie in A-flick drag.

Directed by Louis Leterrier (co-director of the guilty pleasure THE TRANSPORTER), UNLEASHED has a truly ludicrous plot and a ridiculously contrived script. The story reads like it came from a Don "The Dragon" Wilson direct-to video flick (not that I have anything against, Don, by the way): a young child is taken by a small-time gangster and trained to be the gangster's human attack dog. After an accident which separates Danny the dog (Li) from his "master," the completely uncivilized killing machine is taken in by a kindly blind piano tuner and his daughter, who slowly earn his trust and teach him to be human. Then the gangster comes looking for him.

Riddled with coincidence and heavy with shmaltz, UNLEASHED should be an unintentional laugh fest. But it isn't.

The A-list cast, led by Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins (good to see him back in his snarling, LONG GOOD FRIDAY scary limey mode after Hollywood did such a thorough job of de-fanging him and making him cuddly in the 80s) and including Kerry Condon and Li himself, rises above the contrived script, making the viewer believe in these characters and just go along with the story. And the fights! There's not a whole lot of action in the movie, but what's there is astoundingly well choreographed, shot and edited. Li and fight choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (KILL BILL) devised a unique, feral fighting style for Danny, and in the unrated version of the film especially, the fights are jaw-droppingly brutal.

Universal's unrated, extended edition of UNLEASHED isn't exactly loaded with special features, but what's there is solid and well-presented. First off, there's a pristine, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that more than does justice to Pierre Morel's gritty cinematography, with stable colors and a rock-solid image. The audio, which is full and robust, presenting both the bone snappings and plentiful classical music with equal fidelity, is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 5.1 DTS.

Extras include a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes, one of which focuses on the fight scenes. There's also an on-camera interview with director Leterrrier and music videos from Massive Attack and RZA.

It may not be for everybody, but I thought UNLEASHED, despite the silly story, was Jet Li's best English language film to date. The performances are uniformly good and a joy to watch, and the martial arts action is fantastic. I hope rumors about Li's impending retirement are just that. Recommended.

BUY: Unleashed (Unrated Widescreen Edition)