Jet Li (The One), Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) and Louis Leterrier (The Transporter 2) have collaborated in Unleashed to create a seamless action movie that succeeds in almost every department. Besson, who it seems has been avoiding directing since Joan of Arc (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc), has been insanely busy writing and producing in recent years. Kiss of the Dragon was the first time he wrote a film that featured Jet Li, and in retrospect that rather simple feature seems to have been a practice run for Unleashed. Where Kiss of the Dragon was a little too much like a regurgitation of The Professional (Leon) for my liking, this film retains all the admirable qualities of Besson’s best writing – namely a great action movie in which the drama justifies the excesses. Unleashed isn’t afraid to take its time, and at one stage there is no violence for almost thirty minutes – something unheard of in a contemporary action movie. We truly feel for these characters, and are given time to understand and sympathise with their actions.
Massive Attack’s score perfectly accompanies the images, never intrusive and most effective at elevating the unease felt when we know a moment has the potential to erupt in violence. Admittedly there are very few surprises here, but Unleashed is executed so expertly that it matters little.
Bob Hoskins (Vanity Fair) plays a wonderful villain, a man practically oozing evil at every moment, but he never slips into merely playing a pantomime-like nemesis. Morgan Freeman’s (Batman Begins) composed and rational Sam is perfectly matched with his ward Victoria’s youthful energy (Kerry Condon – Intermission). Together they provide a solid base to this very human tale. And Jet Li? He delivers in spades. Not only is his stunt work astounding as always, but he brings enormous depth to the scared and lost Danny. A film such as this would have failed miserably had the action star not been capable of bringing dramatic intensity to the role. What makes the performances all the more effective is the sincerity with which the cast undertake their roles. It feels as though all of the actors are here to bring to life a drama, rather than an action movie.
The action itself is perfect. Even if Mark decides he doesn’t like this film, he’ll have no reason to complain about the stunts. Unleashed has none of the frenetic, disassociated cuts audiences have been subjected to in recent years (think The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or The Bourne Supremacy), instead letting us know exactly what is going on at all times. The blend of CGI, wirework and real stunts is faultless. The action remains only a few steps from what we believe to be possible, and this lends an authenticity to the more fanciful moments.
Unleashed is a film about violence and beauty. Danny is a man who has grown up around violence – both as the perpetrator and the receiver. He craves the beauty he has always been denied – friendship, art, love and music. In fact music holds the key to Danny’s salvation in more ways than one. The piano is paradoxical, and it comes as no surprise that it features prominently in the film. The hammers hit the strings with force, yet the strings resonate with the most enchanting sounds. It is a creature of both violence and beauty.
The film only falters in the final moments, sliding ever so slightly into sickly sentimentality. I’m sure this sounds familiar to anyone out there who’s had to endure the horrible endings attached to some great Hollywood movies. Frequency is the most appropriate example of recent years. But even this cannot diminish the joy I experienced whist watching an action movie that not only excited but also moved me.Rating: