As a director who takes typical Hollywood elements and rebelliously twists them into something unique, Luc Besson is unsurpassed. This time he focuses on the screenplay and lets Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) do the actual filming, but the results are no less impressive. At first glance, it appears to be another action movie. From its electric opening moments, in which Danny (Jet Li) single-handedly pummels a gang of about ten thugs, Unleashed literally attacks your senses, seizes you in a headlock and forces you to pay attention.

Leterrier's camera spins wildly and creates a sense of disorientation, which makes you feel as dizzy and beaten as Danny's adversaries, thus emphasising his control. So far, so cool, but at the back of your mind you start wondering whether this might be just another martial arts no-brainer and hope that things will get interesting beyond Yuen Wo Ping's breathtaking choreography.

Then Bob Hoskins walks in. A British legend, who can play a mean bastard as well as anyone, his violent presence is instantly felt. He puts a large metal leash round Danny's neck, turns to his defeated enemies and brags, "I told you, if you pay, the leash stays on; if you don't, the leash comes off". The excitement felt in the opening fight is superseded by the realisation that Unleashed has an intriguing premise, one that raises interesting questions about the relationship between master and servant.

The plot then unravels at hyper-speed. We learn quickly that Danny has been raised by "Uncle Bart" (Bob Hoskins), a vicious gangster who has trained him to be a killing machine and, in the process, dehumanised him to the point where he is controlled both physically and mentally by the collar around his neck. Danny obeys his master to the point that, if the collar comes off and Bart says, "Kill," Danny kills.

Uncle Bart and his thuggish underlings taunt Danny and refer to him as a dog and all the time he keeps his head down. The depths of the cruelty he must have suffered from childhood is shown by the fact that Uncle Bart keeps him in a makeshift cage underneath his office, his only entertainment a tattered book, teaching the alphabet, and a cuddly toy.

Several heists ensue in which Danny is unleashed and beats the hell out of everyone while his "owners" steal the money, until eventually his fighting talent is spotted by a creepy looking businessman who happens to run a highly lucrative underground fight club, where people pay huge amounts to see grown men fight to the death. Bart sees the big earning potential from this further exploitation of his creation and immediately signs up.

However, soon after the first fight (a blackly comic surprise, the first of many in the film), Danny has a fortuitous encounter with a blind piano-tuner, called Sam (Morgan Freeman), who awakens in him a love of music - a rekindled love, in fact, but we only find this out later through flashbacks. When he miraculously escapes from a car crash, he moves in with Sam and his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon), thinking that the rest of the gang have been killed in the car. Of course, as he tries to rebuild his life and move on, his past is never far behind and even without the collar, he remains chained by emotional forces to the man who raised him.

Like Besson's Leon, Unleashed is unusually powerful, due to Besson's ability to interweave shockingly brutal violence with intimate human storylines and if you can suspend disbelief far enough, you will be rewarded by the emotional crescendo that such a heightened reality can achieve when it reaches its logical conclusion.

On paper, the plot is absolutely impossible, but it has to be, otherwise characters like Bart and Sam would never meet and it is the clash between these two different worlds that makes the film so interesting. The tenderness of Freeman's Sam is totally at odds with the ferocious immorality of Hoskins's Bart, and because both actors play the roles so well, the idea of the two crossing paths at the film's climax fills you with anticipation. And, crucially, the finale doesn't disappoint.

Li is great as Danny, playing the fighter-cum-sensitive-soul with commendable conviction. Hoskins is back on form, clearly revelling in the type of role which suits him best, and the understated, naturalistic performances of Freeman and Condon add a much needed element of humanity that raises the stakes, because you are made to care.

This is an impressive achievement when you consider the level of unreality in this brilliantly odd movie. For example, it is set in Glasgow and there is not a single Scottish accent to be heard. Bizarre, but then after Bristol rapper Tricky's appearance in The Fifth Element - surely the only West country accent to be heard in a Hollywood blockbuster - we should have come to accept that, in Besson's world, anything is possible.

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:

Gator MacReady ***
Iain Macleod **
Anton Bitel *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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