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Unleashed   C

Rogue Pictures / EuropaCorp

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Luc Besson
Cast: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon.

Review by Rob Vaux

I understand, from a marketing standpoint, why the publicity for Unleashed is fronting Jet Li and not Bob Hoskins. Li is a movie star; he's dark, he's brooding, and he can peel back a miscreant like a Chiquita banana. Hoskins, on the other hand, is rotund and barrel-shaped, and RZA remixes aren't really his thing... which won't endear him to the kids these days. Yet I maintain that Unleashed is his film to lose, regardless of whose face is on the poster. Whenever he's offscreen, the movie falls apart, but as long as he's around, the ass-kickery can't be beat.

Hoskins plays Bart, a glorious curtain call for the sort of cockney gangster he immortalized in movies like The Long Good Friday. A raging ball of venom and menace, he runs the Glasgow underworld largely through the use of Li's Danny, whom he keeps in a pen with a collar around his neck. When the collar is removed, Danny drops the hammer on anyone within bashing range, but when it's put back on, he becomes docile as a lamb. Bart uses him as a sort of walking holdout pistol, cutting him loose against anyone who's slow to pay the bill. Though the fight scenes are electric (apparently, no one's allowed to throw a punch anymore unless it's choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping), Hoskins' ferocity eclipses even their kinetic rush. His odd, almost touching monologues are contrasted by the way he revels in working-class depravity, creating a screen presence that devours his costars whole.

Naturally, the film runs into serious trouble when he exits the proceedings. Shot and left for dead by rivals, he's unable to prevent Danny from taking refuge with a kind-hearted piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his musician stepdaughter (Kerry Condon). Their angelic goodness is intended to contrast with Hoskins' evil, but it becomes so maudlin and overplayed that it sets the teeth on edge. Freeman and Condon, both fine actors, do what they can, but as their Pollyanna characters slowly bring Danny out of his shell, the sharp tone set by the film's early scenes is drained away. Li struggles during these sequences as well; while his mute pathos contrasts nicely with his exemplary fighting skills, once he loses that dynamic, he finds himself at sea. Watching Danny come to grips with his inner child is cringe-inducing, and the simplistic dramatic development of trained-killer-to-sensitive-soul is supremely uninvolving.

Indeed, so trying is this interlude that Unleashed never gets back on track for the finale. Though Hoskins reappears and the expected cocktail of thug-thumping gets underway in earnest, something has been lost between the first act and the third. Director Louis Leterrier cloaks the proceedings in a lot of rapid cuts and frantic pacing, but they don't hum with the potential of the opening sequences, and the peril from which Danny is supposedly protecting his new friends is too artificial to convey a real threat. All that energy feels badly misplaced as Unleashed crashes towards its conclusion, and even Hoskins finally succumbs to some ill-advised histrionics. The climax simply makes no sense, skewering its well-meaning story considerations like a squab on a stick.

Too much of the film suffers from the same problem, painting overly broad strokes that obscure and undermine the purpose of the plot. Leterrier has thought the look out quite well, and there's an interestingly iconic symbol in the collar Danny wears, but Unleashed wants to do more with its hero than it can support. To give him any real depth requires a complex approach -- for which this film is in no way prepared -- and yet its resolute adherence to his "development" detracts from the more straightforward pleasures of pounding the bad guys. At least it has a bad guy worth pounding, thanks to Hoskins; his performance alone may be worth a look. But rest of Unleashed never quite manages to back him up, and even popcorn fun like this needs a little more weight in its corner.

Review published 05.12.2005.

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