Directed by Louis Leterrier
Starring Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins
Everything about this movie is profoundly strange. Kerry Condon is the too-young love interest, Morgan Freeman is the Magical Negro, the most prominent motif is Bob Hoskins getting injured in cars. Beneath the streets of Glasgow, rich businessmen bet on gladiator combat fought by emotionally-damaged S&M goths. Then there’s the story itself, where Jet Li plays Danny, a seemingly mute enforcer for a loan shark, only unleashed from a literal collar to apply whirling kung fu on unsuspecting thugs. After he’s taken in by a blind piano tuner and his white teenage step-daughter, Danny will surely regain his stolen humanity. What that means is we’re gonna see Jet Li observing the world and piecing things together like a cute Pixar robot, wearing pajamas and hiding under the bed, not to mention bursting into scenes with awkward lines like “My mother, she was a whore” instead of “Hello.”
This is what American action movies used to be like. Before the lean, mean, stylish revival in the 2010s, these films were multi-genre, so afraid to commit to action alone. Unleashed is as much of a drama as it is a martial arts movie, and structured for sharp demarcation. “Now we’re in the action part, now we’re in the drama part.” This might explain how an action flick from the makers of the Transporter series attracted veteran talent like Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins. It may also be that acting opposite Jet Li in an English-language production means monologues, so this grungy kung fu thing becomes a surprising showcase. Hoskins in particular is a constant scene-chewing threat, barking into the camera or Jet Li’s ear as “Bart,” the white-suited loan shark with an impressively limited universe: he has his dog, and he likes prostitutes. The two often conflict, like when a woman spots Danny under the metal grate, but this hadn’t inspired any sort of logistical introspection on Bart’s part. On the part of Bart.
One scene perfectly illustrates the rabid Bart, when Danny inevitably confronts him about “the truth,” in this case of his late mother. Bart, life suddenly in danger and pulled close for a face-to-face, his voice softens. “When she died, I felt I owed it to her to raise you. I’m sorry if I lied to you, Danny. It was out of love.” If we haven’t momentarily forgotten the absurdity of the situation, it’s not that he becomes entirely sympathetic here but rather takes on the complexity of an abusive parent. However, his exact next line is “Now, let’s go and make up some of that money you lost for me the other night!” with the appropriate facial contortion. This is a character so committed to his one thing that he can’t even wait till morning to talk about it. He can’t even shift to a new conversation. How he ever managed the patience to condition Danny in the first place is hardly evidenced. Interestingly, the conditioning isn’t evidenced, either, and exists fully in the performances between Hoskins and Li. Bart runs around jabbering about how Danny’s a dog and damn that dog Danny, and that’s the whole of his character. The action climax hinges on his simply wanting Danny back, a low-stakes enough conflict that he never becomes truly menacing, and that’s key to his charm.
Unleashed is kind of funny this way, and it’s fairly entertaining and even a little affecting. The action is incredible, a brutal and beautiful marriage between America’s favorite fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping and Jet Li’s ferocious speed. The found family plot works as you might imagine, but still I cannot shake the unrelenting strangeness. The film works as designed, but its pieces are so incorrect. Morgan Freeman enters the film with this line: “Sounds like someone in here could use my help,” which is only appropriate for the coming barrage of wise chestnuts delivered between hearty laughs. And I hope you don’t object to my label of Kerry Condon’s character as the “love interest,” because despite the 20-year age gap, indeed the braces she has removed midway as part of a progress montage, she’s making bedroom eyes at Jet Li the whole time and even teases a kiss scene later. Said kiss lands on the neck, because it is an American Jet Li movie in the 2000s. Regardless, the intent is clear, especially coming from writer Luc Besson, an alleged rapist who married a 15 year old when he was twice that age.
It’s probably advisable to simply avoid Luc Besson movies altogether, but I did have to finally watch Unleashed at some point in my life (and to be honest, I didn’t know it was him, though I did know it wasn’t Andrzej Bartkowiak). This is a movie that’s haunted me now for more than a decade. I remember seeing the trailer on a DVD and finding it remotely disturbing. It’s a too-intense story premise for an action movie, with its core conceit of human bondage and the resulting infantilization of a movie legend. Notably, Jet Li is an executive producer on Unleashed, indicated by the oddly-ordered opening credits. I can trust he signed off on everything, and the movie does frame his character as a sympathetic trauma victim, not a feral other. In fact, that’s the difference between how the good guys and bad guys view him.
But why are we even talking about this shit? All I could think about when watching Unleashed was the 2000s, and how it might just have been the worst decade for American action movies, and maybe action movies in general. The short-lived dalliance of Chinese stars in Hollywood paid out little, and we narrowed from the diversity of overwrought blockbusters like Pirates and the Matrix trilogy down to an efficient but nonetheless single genre by the end. In direct contrast to The Raid and John Wick, we sat through lots of action movies where action didn’t seem to be the focus, didn’t seem to come from a thoughtful place. Remember how The Punisher (2004) was pulverized into the chaotic perfection of Punisher: War Zone? Now, there’s another example of a found family. Why do I care about these characters who don’t kick people? And naturally, Jet Li’s self-discovery also yields the revelation that Bart killed his mom, so all this character stuff begets a revenge story. You can hardly avenge yourself, I suppose.
Unfortunately, I’m on the verge of a reductive, prescriptive argument, suggesting a singular true shape action movies should aspire to, that there’s something different about this one genre, just as the critics always said. Conventional wisdom supposes that action is no lesser than drama, that the criticism of the “in-between” parts is criticism 101. As a filmgoer, this is what you eventually overcome. It appears then that my own hurdle is reconciling with the focus of action. Because the meat of the genre should generally be “exciting” or “thrilling,” the other elements can’t undermine against that. I don’t like flashbacks, for example, because they slow forward motion, disrupting the ideal, propulsive storytelling between set pieces. However, by excising flashbacks, I’m limiting the toolbox.
In the future, even the stripped-down formula will test our patience. We’ll desire more than just a string of even the best action sequences, and the cycle turns again. Hopefully, we’ll learn something from each period, and from the 2000s that you can’t trust these bloated, insecure movies to properly imitate the genres they aspire to. Trust the main attractions. Believe in them. Writing around a foreign actor’s limitation with the English language is a good instinct, but Danny the Dog feels maybe like overcorrection, to the point where things get weird. The 2000s was also a time when Hollywood couldn’t envision Asian-American stars, so it imported Asians from Asia and did just enough with them to call it a failed experiment, decimating the potential for representation for another ten years. That’s a lot of conjecture, but when you put the one Asian guy in a European country on a collar, I’m gonna apply Occam’s razor.
We have exciting action directors working today like Chad Stahelski, Gareth Evans, even Timo Tjahjanto and Cathy Yan (better defined by horror and drama, respectively) and we had some of the greatest action stars working just a decade ago – never the two did meet. In fact, Ip Man and John Wick make use of the legacy supporting players around those great stars, whether Scott Adkins, Donnie Yen, or Mark Dacascos. It isn’t just a matter of bad timing, but that both the action genre and Asian stars weren’t valued as they are now. Unleashed is actually a French production, again not unusual for that time period. As a result, as much for its content, the movie is an uncomfortable reminder of a different time, when only fictional characters expressed enthusiasm for kung fu.
Scott Adkins, underused, hair spiky