Jet Li is an action star. Just because the word ''act'' is contained therein, it doesn't necessarily mean he'll excel on that front. Having said that, however, his latest actioner Unleashed, isn't exactly a disappointment.
Danny (Li) has lived his life with his ''Uncle'' Bart (Bob Hoskins), a fiery gangster who has trained Danny to be an enforcer and do his dirty work for him. In truth, Bart has basically treated Danny like an animal--a dog, to be exact, collar and all--not a person. As soon as Danny's job of savagely beating those who had ''wronged'' his uncle is complete, he goes back to his dark, dank quarters. One day, upon finding a benevolent blind man Sam (Morgan Freeman) playing a piano, Danny discovers that he's more than merely a dog. Sam takes Danny into his home and teaches him about the piano and human relationships, with the help of his step-daughter (Kerry Condon). All seems to be going well, but the collar wrapped around Danny's neck is a link to his former violent life--and, of course, Bart. Heading down that path of redemption, Danny winds up reluctantly going back to his uncle, albeit in a different frame of mind. The tension builds as a massive showdown between Danny and Bart becomes imminent. It is only after his collar is taken off that Danny is unleashed.
It's usually not Jet Li's job to exude acting chops, just execute the karate kind. But while the main thrust of Unleashed is the highly choreographed and entertaining fight sequences that show off his unbelievable skills, the actor still tries his hand at keeping it real. Thankfully, Unleashed is a decided improvement over most of Li's other nonsensical American movies (Cradle 2 the Grave anyone?), and is tailor-made for his broken English and acting range. Freeman, on the other hand, lends such an air of authenticity and workmanship to Unleashed that one wonders how the they were able to reel in the venerable actor, hot off his Oscar-winning performance in Million Dollar Baby. He is simply perfect as the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Sam. Then there is Hoskins. The robust British actor has had his fair share of Freeman-like success and has rightfully earned that same class of respect. But lately he seems to be taking any roles he can get, no matter the size (see Son of the Mask. On second thought, don't). It's clear playing Bart is a no-brainer for him, but he tends to go unnecessarily over the top.
Director Louis Leterrier shows a knack for the action, suggestive of a veteran filmmaker, even though he's only made two movies. His first film, 2002's The Transporter, was a relative hit and as far as straight action movies and directorial debuts go, it was a thing of beauty. The same can more or less be said for Unleashed. Simply put, if this movie fails on any front, it will not be due to a lack of blood, sweat and tears from Leterrier. He captures both the fight sequences and the occasional poignancy with stark eloquence, with every little detail in place. And the theatrics of it all--i.e. special effects, loud-as-hell sound effects--doesn't hurt either. The Japanese-revenge genre is executed to a tee, but he doesn't let it overstep its boundaries and turn the film into a cliché. It's not an easy thing to do, and many directors would be unable to solve that conundrum. The only disparity between this project and his last is that he has probably less to work with this time around, yet he has much more to lose. It's safe to say he does not crack under the pressure.
With Jet Li attempting a wide emotional range, Unleashed will undoubtedly surprise some. But meddling with the martial arts star's proven, straightforward action formula may prove to be a costly flaw.