Unleashed. 2005. Directed by Louis Leterrier. Screenplay by Luc Besson.
Starring Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon, Vincent Regan, Dylan Brown, Tamer Hassan, Michael Jenn, Phyllida Law, Carole Ann Wilson, Mike Lambert, Jaclyn Tze Wey, Puthirith Chou, Tony Theng, & Owen Lay. TF1 Films Production/EuropaCorp/Danny the Dog Productions.
Rated 18A. 103 minutes.
Admittedly not huge on Louis Letterier’s filmography as director, The Transporter was some nice light and exciting action, and his 2008 The Incredible Hulk is definitely the better of the two most recent iterations of the character before Marvel’s Cinematic Universe came into being and blew up wildly. Also, Now You See Me was much better than expected, even if it isn’t anything overly amazing.
But Unleashed is one whopping action movie with plenty emotional drama and a story filled with underground crime to the brim. Having already worked together through the aforementioned Transporter film, Leterrier uses another Luc Besson screenplay to absolute demolish the senses right along with the various bones broken and skin torn to shreds throughout the plot. Jet Li is at his peak here, no matter what anyone says. Furthermore, this breaks him away from so many typical roles he ends up with in the Hollywood action landscape.
This is an unusually dark, tense ride through an underworld of crime, which contains a lot of great fights, memorable characters with some solid performances, and what I’d consider Leterrier’s best work as a director. And much as I love Besson as a science fiction director and writer, his writing skills in Unleashed show off why he’s able to put an innovative spin on the action genre, and why his talent endures in the industry.
Any action film, no matter the content, is best served by opening things up with a solid action sequence. Seems a little unnecessary to point out, as the name of the genre might suggest inherently you’re going to get action right off the bat. But some movies don’t always stick to their guns. Action movies that don’t start out with a bang, instead opting for scenes to start fleshing out characters and the emotional stakes of the main plot, risk alienating the people to whom they’re addressing as an audience. All the same, not every action flick has to open with a 10-minute sequence that crosses three or four locations/set pieces and has explosions, so on. No, all a movie needs to do is start out with a key sequence that displays some of the action magic we’ll see throughout the rest of the film’s runtime. Besson’s screenplay gets things kicking, literally, and then still within the first 20 minutes he’s also included a major dramatic aspect to his story. So there’s still an hour and a half afterwards to go in all sorts of directions. With the adrenaline pumping, Besson could’ve digressed into a ton of drama. Instead he opts to alternate between a heavy dose of action and then the introduction of Sam (Morgan Freeman) before diving back into violent action. I also love the anti-climactic first fight Danny (Jet Li) has in the underground club, because it’s anti-climactic in such a fun sense; we’re expecting this impressive sequence where Danny’s about to show off some major skills to these people, and he does, just not in their ideal way of entertainment. So while there’s an aspect of disappointment, this sort of fake-out Besson writes in works so well and makes the scene darkly funny.
Bart: “As my saint of a mum used to say: Get ‘em while they‘re young and the possibilities are endless”
Wyeth: “It was the Jesuits who said that”
Bart: “Probably got it from my mum“
A major aspect of why Unleashed appeals to me is because for both Besson and Leterrier, this is an unusually gritty piece of work. And not simply the story. The look and feel are also equally dark. Often, even in the stuff of his I enjoy so much, Besson can be unbearably flashy. Likewise, Leterrier’s got a penchant for big, brash action that’s totally focused on looking bright and sleek, almost akin to a car commercial. This movie is definitely slick, just not in the sense it’s visually shiny; it moves along with a nice pace and a thorough flow, both in its dramatic portions and most certainly while the action is pounding the screen (and your pulse). The cinematography keeps everything grim and rugged, as do the specific locations chosen for filming which compliment the camera work. For an action film (not knocking them but we all know the focus is on the visuals mostly and not as heavily dependent on intricate plotting), Unleashed lines up so nicely on all fronts, as the story’s emotions and the visual style meet in sync. And even for a gritty slice of action, there’s plenty drama to fill out the spaces in between.
The fight choreography is unreal. Specifically, the fight club pit where Danny faces off against a host of strange and terrifying fighters contains some amazing moments. The second night Bart sends Danny into the ring things start to get intense. From one moment to the next, Unleashed brings its ferocity, wearing energy on its sleeves. Li is always an awesome fighter, but takes it to the next level at many points throughout the film. The pit scene where they send several fighters in against him is some nice group fighting, which sees Danny get the shit kicked out of him before going absolutely berserk. While there’s a slight bit of wire-work involved, most of these bits are just out and out brutal. Even against weapons, Danny only uses his feet, fists, skull, and other body parts to combat the psychopaths he’s put up against (okay he uses a sledgehammer but only for a few seconds). That’s part of why I love the fight scenes because Li’s natural talent is on total display instead of trying to amp things up unnaturally. We get the full, furious magic of Li giving us his all. Also, you can’t forget the other fighters who face Danny – including an early, brief Scott Adkins performance (he might not be the best actor but this man can fight). Overall, the fight choreography and the execution in the hands of the actors, most importantly Li in what I consider one of his all around best films (from acting to fights), makes this a spectacular piece of action cinema.
The climactic fight scene during the last twenty minutes or so is one hell of an action piece. In a movie that could easily become a drain on the senses, the previously mentioned lack of flashy looks helps immensely. Where everything is dreary and almost urban gothic-looking, Leterrier keeps us engaged completely. Keeping the look gritty adds an extra layer. Meanwhile, the fights in this whole sequence are wild, especially once Danny squares off against the guy in the flowing white karate gi. My favourite aspect to this finale is that mostly all the other fights confined themselves to one immediate location, whereas Besson and Leterrier take us through a bunch of locations in an apartment complex while Danny and the man in white fight one another tooth and nail. Simultaneously, the choreography of these scenes allows for a further, closer look even as we’re jumping from one location to the next; Danny and the man in white exchange some wicked little close quarters combat technique that will pump your blood hard and fast.
This is absolutely a 4-star bit of action. You have Jet Li kicking ass and also using his acting chops to draw out an emotional core plot the whole film’s story. Then there’s also a favourite of mine, Bob fucking Hosins (R.I.P), whose talent never ceased to amaze me – his abilities as a hateful bad guy are used to the fullest extent and he puts on a good show. Altogether, the look and feel of the camera work, some soundtrack work by Massive Attack and RZA, the dirty, raw locations, Hoskins and Li (and Morgan Freeman), the writing, the direction: it’s plenty of fun. Unleashed might not be considered as stellar by others. For me, it’s one of those action movies that ticks off almost every last box, and makes a disturbing little story into something grandiose. I can forgive its flaws. Because there’s much to love.