03 June 2005

Donnie Gets UNLEASHED!!

Hey guys, it’s Donnie…here with my take on Louis Leterrier’s UNLEASHED.

The one thing that I absolutely loved about this movie was it’s ability to continually surprise me. From the trailers, the movie appears to be fairly formulaic in nature. Walking into the theater, I was pretty certain I had the story structure figured out and I settled myself in for what I anticipated to be an enjoyable but utterly predictable film. Standard Jet Li action fare.

Boy was I off.

This film is anything but the standard Jet Li action fare. First of all, the film’s structure is really pretty refreshing. I expected to open with the standard introductory fight to demonstrate the status quo, followed by the fight where everything goes wrong and the status quo changes, Danny ends up with the kind family that takes him in and teaches him not to be a killer, at which point Bob Hoskins and his gangster cronies track him down, threaten the family, put one of them in danger, thus forcing Danny to kick some ass one final time.

We open with exactly that structure, opening fight, onto the next fight where shit goes wrong and it looks like Danny’s gonna get separated from his master and then…he doesn’t. He comes to the rescue and kicks all kinds of ass. This was the first thing that really made me sort of sit up and take notice. Danny spends a great deal of time with the gangsters in the first act. In fact, he spends almost the entire first act under Bob Hoskins’ control, which really bodes well for Hoskins. I shouldn’t have to say that Hoskins is an absolute treasure onscreen, especially when he gets to be his badass British self and ESPECIALLY when he’s playing one of these shady, lowlife gangster types, and thankfully he’s given enough screen time here that he really gets to flesh out Uncle Monty into a totally dynamic villain as opposed to a broadly drawn, mustache-twirling taskmaster. He’s the type of asshole you love to hate and every time he walks onscreen, you can’t help but pay attention.

The fights choreography is really fantastic. I was totally riveted to every second of every fight, because there is a certain element of savage desperation inherent in every blow, and it’s totally due to the stellar performance of Jet Li. The man has made a name for himself in America by playing characters who are very cool, calculated, disciplined and, above all, in control. Movies like Cradle 2 The Grave, The One, Lethal Weapon 4 all personify the popular perception of Jet Li by mainstream audiences. Here, Li totally breaks the mold. Danny barely speaks for the first 25 minutes or so. He is literally a human dog, standing by, harmless, quiet, unassuming, but trained to kill on command. And not just kill, DESTROY. (Think I’m wrong? Wait for the fight in the bathroom stall. Go ahead. Just wait.) Every single fight is an absolute fight for his life, and he doesn’t stop until everyone has stopped moving. Rather than fighting in an intricate, graceful, fluid kung fu style, he simply launches himself at his enemy and once he finds a move that works, like a punch to the head, he just keeps punching until someone pulls him off.

Watching Danny fight is like watching a child play Mortal Kombat, which totally makes sense for the character Li has crafted here. He’s been severely abused, both physically and psychologically. He has the mind of a 10 year old boy, and when he breaks free of his tormentors and is taken in by the always reliable Morgan Freeman and the utterly luminescent Kerry Condon, watching Danny discover things like ice cream and playing the piano is an absolute joy to watch. I can’t say enough about the wonderful character work done by Jet Li in this film. It’s an absolute shame that this movie hasn’t drawn any greater attention, because this is the one that proves that Jet Li can do more than just kick a lot of ass. Boy’s got chops.

Leterrier’s direction is totally solid. Not earth-shatteringly fantastic, but definitely a little above average. The production design is top-notch. There’s a tangible and subtle visual difference between the grey and grimy world of Danny’s captors and the warm and well worn world of his surrogate family, much like the blue/green difference between the real world and the Matrix. The cinematography is intense and gives the story a bit of an epic feel. We get swept up in Danny’s flashbacks and get totally sucker-punched a few times.

Ultimately, the movie is far from revolutionary. It’s a well told action movie that pushes a few boundaries and has a whole lotta heart, all while kicking nine different kinds of ass. All told, a totally enjoyable flick that I highly recommend.


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