French filmmaker Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita) has been notably absent from behind the camera since his last directing job, 1999's Joan of Arc epic, The Messenger. Instead, through producing and writing, he's been building a cottage industry of films that quite literally kick ass. Not only was his production company, Les Films de Dauphins, behind Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior, The Transporter and Kiss of the Dragon, he also penned the latter two.
Besson seems interested in rescuing the action film from Jerry Bruckheimer's computer-generated excess. Instead of relying on big stars and bigger explosions, he crafts reasonably engaging stories that feature real people crashing through the windows of real cars.
His latest contribution to the genre is Jet Li's Unleashed, penned by Besson and directed by Louis Leterrier. Originally known as Danny the Dog (which is, oddly enough, more appropriate), the film was quickly retitled to satisfy Focus Films' marketing department. Mixing flashy fight sequences with sentimental drama, the film bears many thematic similarities to Besson's earlier (and best) film, The Professional.
In Unleashed, lead character Danny (Li) is raised as a rabid attack dog by his brutally corrupt "uncle" Bart (Bob Hoskins), and beats the living hell out of anyone who doesn't make good on Bart's loans. Danny lives in a cage beneath a warehouse office, where he struggles to remember his childhood. One day, while waiting outside for his master's signal, he meets Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner, whose playing stirs up potent memories. A series of violent encounters result in Danny's escape from Bart, whereupon he's taken in by Sam and his stepdaughter, Victoria. Danny finds warmth and acceptance, awakening in him a longing for human connection. Unfortunately, Bart has stumbled across an underground fight ring where Danny's skills stand to make him a lot of money.
The film's emotionalism, while sometimes hokey, sets it apart from the rest of the action genre. The outlandish premise provides lots of dramatic potential and offers some unexpected tenderness. Freeman and Hoskins represent two extremes of parenting: one patient and kind, the other violent and selfish. Li does a surprisingly decent job of playing a feral Rain Man, convincingly wrestling with his budding humanity and ferocious animal instincts.
Unfortunately, Besson isn't interested in serious examination; he's interested in kicking your ass. Eschewing computers and scarcely using wire effects, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix) stages some bracing scenes. Filmed in a gritty, understated style, every bone-crunching body blow resonates with realism. A vicious fistfight in a tiny bathroom must be seen to be believed. Furthermore, the movie's violence has context. Much as in The Bourne Identity, Besson establishes a moral center to the brutality. The violence is never depicted as an answer, but rather an unfortunate inevitability. It's a surprising and welcome development in an otherwise superficial and nihilistic genre.
In the end, Unleashed isn't dark or deep enough to effectively pull off its fairy-tale elements. Still, there's something encouraging about an action film with a conscience. Fusing sadistic aggression with human tenderness, the film provides just enough thrills and charms to warrant a look.