Unleashed and Put Down
Welcome to the 500WPD inaugural bi-annual DVD review section. Actually these reviews may come more or less frequently though I just wanted to convey the illusion of the blog abiding by any regular schedules and updates. I think it's fair to say that any particularly good or crappy movie will inspire me to write a review for it.
Therefore, mediocrity will be summarily ignored. You know, I've always wanted to use 'therefore' in my blog writing.
This, unfortunately, will be a review of an undeniably crappy movie and it gives me great honour to premiere this section with such a stinker. I present to you, Jet Li's Unleashed.
From the minds that brought you Transporter, Transporter 2 and La Femme Nikita (yes, I think they're still milking that ancient movie) comes a touching tale about a boy raised as a dog, beating the snot out of nameless Brit thugs for the pleasure of his small-time mob boss, only to realize, with the help of Morgan Freeman, that he is indeed a gentle soul whose true calling is playing the piano and picking out ripe fruits from the market.
Now if that pitch didn't send you jaywalking through rush hour to your video store, I don't know what will. So I'll admit that my tongue is permanently lodged in my cheek for this one. You have to bear with me while I try to sort out the puzzling, sappy, and ridiculous experience that is Unleashed. Writer/producer Luc Besson and director, Louis Leterrier have admirably tried to elevate the chop-socky genre to a higher artistic level, incorporating hefty doses of melodrama and a pinch of dark comedy in between the roundhouse kicks. I would really like to see more beat'em up movies to use comedy (as it was done so well in Kung Fu Hustle) and drama to lend more gravitus to their wanton destruction. The extent to which Besson, Li and Leterrier fail to make either a satisfying drama or action movie is truly a marvel of good intentions gone wrong.
Luc Besson is fast becoming the less successful French equivalent of Jerry Bruckheimer. The difference between the two is Bruckheimer actually knows how to make crap that sells tickets. I remember feeling sorry for Unleashed when it was released to theaters a mere week before the launch of Star Wars Episode Three: The Revenge of the Sith. As expected, Unleashed was promptly eclipsed by the Star Wars hype . Even a buddy of mine, usually a sucker for any kind of mindless fighting or adventure flick, decided to pass on Jet Li's latest vehicle of career self-destruction.
So what's so wrong with this movie, you ask. To summarize: EVERYTHING.
To this day, after three Matrix movies, and countless imitations, American filmmakers still do not know how to film complex martial arts battles to save their lives. I give some slack to Jackie Chan, who has managed to infuse his Hollywood productions with enough of his trademark acrobatic hijinks to make them watchable. Everyone else has gotten it wrong so far, including Mr. Jet Li. The fights in Unleashed are lit well and take place in grimy, atmospheric locale (i.e. the underground 'fight club' subplot), but are completely bereft of emotion, artistry or originality. And frankly, there isn't enough fighting to make up for the fact it's all fairly mediocore.
A massive chunk of the film's middle portion is used to showcase Jet Li's lost puppy routine after he encounters a gentle, blind piano tuner played by Morgan Freeman and his adopted teenage daughter (Kerry Condon). This syrupy duo provides the obvious counterpoint to Li's own adopted father/master, played by scenery-chewing Bob Hoskins, a ferocious but insufferably incompetent London gang boss. Freeman and Condon simply beg to be adored as the lovable interracial father-daughter team who decide to take in Li's character after he gets seperated from his violent life as debt-collecting pit bull. The deliberate nature of this set up, however, is far too artificial to be believable.
So I sat there, enduring what must have been 45 minutes of ham-handed family drama when all I really wanted to see was some good head-cracking. A note to Luc Besson and co.: just because you're using cliché dramatic plot devices in an action movie doesn't mean they're not clichés anymore! The serious emotional stuff feels grafted on like so much torn skin and likewise, the clumsy fight sequences are randomly shoe-horned into the story as if the filmmakers felt obligated to give us the fighting instead of more of that great drama on display. The origins of Li's character, Danny, are telegraphed way in advance that you would have to be lobotomized to not figure it out before the climax. The dialogue? Repeititive and awful too.
Morgan Freeman has been known to class up any movie he's in, but even he's clearly out of his depth this time around. Bob Hoskins submits a nasty villain role that is fun to watch at first, then becomes tiresome long before we hit the denouement. Jet Li still needs to work on his English and by God, could they have found someone a little younger to play 18-year old Victoria? Kerry Condon's a decent actor, but watching someone who likes she's 30 prancing around in a school uniform and braces was too hilarious for words.
There you have it. Run, don't walk, to your local video store and demand they throw every copy of Unleashed into the landfill from whence it came. Truly, if there ever was a good reason for Jet Li to leave Hollywood forever, THIS IS IT. Give it up, man. Romeo Must Die was the only decent American movie you ever made. Five years is an awfully long time to make a comeback. Give it up!
Summary: 1 wire-assisted jump kick out of 5 touching piano scenes with Morgan Freeman = better than Cradle 2 Grave but worse than Exit Wounds.