Oh Bring Back My Danny to Me

That crime boss Bart (Bob Hoskins) can rightfully snarl. He’s the top dog in town with his human pet Danny (Jet Li) under his command. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he simply unleashes Danny’s collar and his will will be done. Danny is raised to raise hell. He’s masterful in physically beating his master’s adversaries into submission. Then one day, a disaster strikes and Danny is presented with an opportunity to stray. He reaches out to a blind piano tuner he had met earlier. This is Sam (Morgan Freeman), who is the first person to show kindness towards Danny in a long time. Sam welcomes Danny into his home and gives Danny a chance to live like a normal human being. Under Bart, Danny lived in a cage, uttered limited words, and read children’s books. With Sam, he sleeps in his own room, eats on the dining table, and learns how to tell if a melon is ripe. Does this “human” lifestyle last for Danny?

My favorite Jet Li movies are “Once Upon a Time in China” and “Hero.” Outside China, the action star always looks awkward like a fish out of water. There seems to be only one reason for his appearance in American and European produced films – his martial arts skills. And maybe that’s why “Unleashed” works well. Jet Li is perfect as the socially handicapped outsider Danny, whose sole purpose is to fight. When his character meets Sam and is guided away from violence, Jet Li takes a break from fighting. Just as Danny is given a new life, Li is finally able to showcase his acting skills. This might be the first time he solicits more laughs and smiles from his performance than groaning reactions from his fight scenes.

The movie is fortunate to have Jet Li be book ended by two acting veterans. I don’t know how he does it but Freeman always provides a sense of comfort and joy when he’s on screen. His character is almost unreal because his company is so infectious. Bob Hoskins is deliciously rabid as the crime boss. This is quite a fascinating villain, who begins to resemble a dog the more he barks orders. I never knew what a versatile actor Hoskins is. I vividly remember him giving a menacing performance in Atom Egoyan’s “Felicia’s Journey.” But a friend, who’s an IMDB junkie, reminds me he’s the private eye figuring “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and is Smee in “Hook.”

Upon reflection, “Unleashed” has a simple story. It is like Disney’s “Lilo & Sticth” (also about a killing machine who stumbles upon a warm family) but only more violent for kids. And oh boy, the fights (marvelously choreographed as always) are not only a freaky feast for the eyes. They’re also gloriously sickening to the ears. I love it when the Jet Li beats the shit out of muscled men who towers him. So okay it’s nothing new, but how could you not chew on such a treat.

Grade: B