Where earlier French filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville were able to transform their love of American movies into a distinctly Gallic vision, Luc Besson has always seemed content merely to ape the most reductive elements of Hollywood (girls, guns, speed). Nikita and Taxi readily lent themselves to remakes simply because they were already studied pastiches of Tinseltown schlock, with only the French language denying them a mass audience on the other side of the Atlantic, while he shot similar blockbuster rip-offs, Leon and The Fifth Element, entirely in English, with only the nationality of the former film's protagonist offering even a hint of French flavour to an otherwise all-American pie. Besson realised long ago that in France, as much as in the US, it is easiest to sell "la merde" and his nose for the lowest common denominator has proven just as keen for sniffing out the bottom line.

His latest script is not only in English and conspicuously lacking French actors in any of its lead roles, perhaps most gallingly for ardent Gallophiles, even the alternative title, adopted for its cinema release in France, Danny The Dog, is defiantly English, apparently punning on the name of director Louis Leterrier (literally "Louis the terrier"), for whom Besson specifically wrote the film, following the success of their collaboration on The Transporter.

Starring Jet Li, who previously featured in Besson's Kiss Of the Dragon, Unleashed tells the story of Danny, taken as a boy from his mother and reared by thuggish mob collector Bart (Bob Hoskins), as an illiterate, unquestioningly obedient and lethally effective attack dog to be unleashed on anyone unwise enough not to pay their debts. Separated from Bart and his men in a violent incident, the childlike Danny is taken in by blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his teenage stepdaughter Victoria (newcomer Kerry Condon), whose kindness awakens his humanity and triggers memories of his own mother. Bart, however, eager to turn Danny's bestial skills to profit at an illegal fight club, will stop at nothing to retrieve his prize "dog".

With its strange protagonist emerging into the world after decades of isolation, Unleashed might have been something akin to The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, or Bad Boy Bubby, but there is no subtlety, let alone enigma, to be found in its cartoonish preposterousness. In fact, the film's plot - a savage killing machine is civilised and redeemed through contact with innocent goodness - is much closer to the spirit of Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, Terminator 2 and Besson's own Leon. Like these films, Unleashed offers an uneasy blend of vicious action (Danny's intense fighting scenes) and syrupy sentimentality (Danny discovering the joys of ice-cream, kissing and Mozart). Certainly, the film is at its most electrifying when Danny is ferociously punching, kicking and biting his opponents, thanks to the kinetic talents of Li and the martial arts choreography by Yuen Wo Ping, but unfortunately the engrossing impact of such bloody spectacle works to undermine the supposed anti-violence message, delivered in the more irksomely mawkish scenes.

The inherent implausibility of the film's setting in Glasgow is rendered all the more absurd by the marked lack of any Scots amongst the principal characters. Instead, we have Li kicking ass like a master, but struggling with the more emotionally charged scenes, Freeman dialing in his "wise man" shtick before collecting his cheque and Hoskins joining a long line of actors (Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, Alan Rickman in Robin Hood - Prince Of Thieves and Colin Farrell in DareDevil) who, faced with a weak script and cliche-riddled plot, decide that the only acceptable approach is to go over the top. It is a mesmerising performance, both pillaging and parodying everything that Hoskins has done before, but it is almost as though he is in a different film from the rest of the cast.

In short, this is a dog of a movie, better not unleashed on any discerning viewer.

Reviewed on: 20 Aug 2005
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A Jet Li martial arts extravaganza, with sensitive side issues and Bob Hoskins in bully mode.
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Read more Unleashed reviews:

Nick Jones *1/2
Gator MacReady *1/2
Iain Macleod *1/2

Director: Louis Leterrier

Writer: Luc Besson

Starring: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon, Vincent Regan, Dylan Brown, Tamer Hassan, Michael Jenn, Phyllida Law, Carole Ann Wilson, Michael Ian Lambert, Jaclyn Lee

Year: 2004

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France/UK/US

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