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Action superstar Jet Li is one of the biggest names in Asian cinema, but so far his attempts to break into mainstream Western films have been less than successful. Along with his cameo role in Lethal Weapon 4, Li has starred in a series of predictable, mostly soulless action vehicles including Romeo Must Die, Kiss of the Dragon and Cradle 2 the Grave. Only 2001’s The One showed any real promise, but even that was a definite case of style over substance. Unleashed is something different. Directed by Louis Leterrier, the man behind The Transporter (and its recent sequel), the film allows Li more room to actually create a character the audience can sympathise with, while still delivering the sort of bone-crunching action that genre fans are used to.

Unleashed

Feature


Jet Li plays Danny, a tragic figure who has spent the better part of his life imprisoned by an abusive mentor who has trained him to act as his personal human attack dog. His sadistic ‘Uncle’ Bart (Bob Hoskins) is a small-time gangster who runs various protection scams and uses Danny as an enforcer to ensure that the local businessmen pay what he’s ‘owed’. Pay up, and everything’s fine. Refuse to pay, and Danny’s collar comes off. When Danny’s collar comes off, people get hurt.

After Bart is apparently shot dead in a revenge-style shooting, Danny runs bleeding and scared into a dilapidated antiques shop. It is there that he meets Sam, a kindly, blind piano tuner from New York, who takes Danny into his home. Here Danny is introduced to Sam’s step-daughter, Victoria, an accomplished pianist who is in town studying at a prestigious school. Through their kindness, and his love of music, Danny begins to break his violent conditioning, enjoying simple pleasures such as ice cream and his first kiss. However, when Bart returns and threatens to harm his adoptive family, Danny is forced back into a world of violence and pain.

Unleashed is not your typical Jet Li movie. Sure there’s the usual high-kicking action that we’ve come to expect from the great man, but there’s far less of it than one might expect. There are only really four set-pieces, two of which occur relatively early on in the proceedings, although with Yuen Woo-ping choreographing things you’re unlikely to be disappointed by what action there is. The second act of the film is almost entire devoted to exploring Danny’s emotional awakening and as such offers Li the chance to demonstrate his acting chops. I was surprised by how well he was able to cope with what is actually a fairly demanding role, given that English is not his first language. Danny is a complex character; both tragic and humorous, with an almost childlike perception of the world.

Unleashed
Both Freeman and Condon are also great in their respective supporting roles, but it is Bob Hoskin’s turn as Bart that impresses the most. Like many abusers, Bart controls Danny by way of alternate bouts of brutality and kindness, giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The only thing I really feel the need to question about the performances is the absence of any Scottish accents in a film set in Glasgow–even the owner of the local shop is a cockney! It’s also worth noting that the film’s original title was Danny the Dog. I’m not completely sure why the powers that be though it was necessary to change it, especially to the pun-tastic Unleashed

Video


Universal presents Unleashed as an anamorphically enhanced, progressive transfer at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image is generally very good, with few (if any) film or digital artefacts to spoil the viewer’s enjoyment. The palette is intentionally washed out, with the gritty, muted colours of the Glaswegian setting only really beginning to brighten up when Danny discovers the world around him. This is obviously a stylistic choice and the transfer does a fine job of handling the material, although the picture is not as sharp as one might expect from a fairly recent release. However, the biggest problem I had with the image pertained to the contrast, which was slightly off throughout. This had the effect of making shadow detail particularly difficult to pick out, and I found it quite distracting during the film’s many darker scenes. Apparently it was presented in the manner during its theatrical run, but either way I found it off-putting.

Unleashed

Audio


The included Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a great job with both the loud, action-packed segments of the film and the softer, quieter moments. Things get off to a rousing start as Danny beats seven shades out of a group of hired goons, with the dull, thwacking sound of his punches hammered home by good use of the LFE channel, and the various screams and groans coming from all around the listening position. Ambient effects are just as impressive, especially during one particular scene that takes place during a violent thunderstorm (you will think it’s raining outside). All-in-all it’s an effective track that delivers where it counts—can't ask for much more than that.

Extras


A ‘Making of FX’ featurette open this section, but it only runs for a little over two minutes. In actual fact, all this piece shows is the way in which the CGI model of the piano used in the film’s closing shot was created. We get to see the various stages of computer modelling, all set to some lovely music, but that’s it. It’s not really what I’d call a ‘making of’ to be honest.

The trailer differs from the one I saw in the cinema many months ago. That particular effort wasn’t terribly effective (and that’s putting it mildly), but the one we get on this disc appears to be the original European version. The film is referred to by its original title of Danny the Dog, rather than the watered-down Unleashed, and it makes the film look far more interesting than whatever it was I saw theatrically. Next up we have ‘Gag Reels’, which is comprised of around three and a half minute’s worth of on-set cock-ups, line fluffs and other ‘hilarious’ antics. Unfortunately it’s one of the weakest gag reels I’ve seen.

Unleashed
‘Complete Scenes’ is actually a confusing way of describing extended scenes. There are three in total, the first of which is the scene where Danny goes postal in the jewellery store. There was originally a lot more to the scene, with Danny taking on more henchmen and even getting hit by a stun gun (which fazed him for all of thirty seconds). Next is a slightly extended version of the pit-fighting scene, with a few new shots thrown in to stir things up. Finally we have the scene where Danny, Victoria and Sam are preparing to flee before the gangsters arrive. As with the others, this scene plays pretty much as it does in the theatrical version, save for a few extended shots of violence. All scenes are presented in rough-cut form with time-codes, not to mention visible wires during some of the stunts.

Two and a half minutes of deleted scenes come next. There are only two scenes in the segment, one of which focuses Danny’s new life with Victoria and Sam, with the other being an excised fight scene. Not a lot to get worked up about here I’m afraid. A music video for RZA’s ‘Baby Boy’ comes next. This is fine for what it is, and I actually quite like the chilled-out tune, but it’s not something I’d return to time and again (this is true of most music videos on DVD).

Of more value is the ‘Making of Unleashed’ featurette, which runs for around thirty six minutes. The documentary features interviews with Jet Li (speaking in English), director Leterrier and various crew members (all speaking in French), in which they discuss the genesis of the project. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes footage from the initial script readings and costume tests, along with on-set footage of the movie in production, including candid shots of the cast at work and play. We also get to see Yuen Woo-ping’s stunt team choreographing some of the fight scenes, which is sure to be of great interest to fans of the master. All-in-all this is a pretty interesting peek at the production and definitely the most worthy extra on the disc. If only there had been more features along the same lines to strengthen this otherwise uninspiring set of extras.

Unleashed

Overall


Unleashed is undoubtedly Jet Li’s most accomplished performance in a Western film, not to mention a pretty decent attempt at creating an action movie with ‘heart’. Universal’s DVD offers solid technical presentation, backed-up by a reasonable selection of supplementary material. For Li fans this is unquestionably one to own, although those expecting a huge amount of action might be a little disappointed. Still, it doesn’t hurt to try something new once in a while, so I have no qualms about recommending Unleashed.


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