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Unleashed came into U.S theatres with the same sort of atmosphere and setting to explode much like Star Wars did. It had a relatively bankable star waiting to explode into the mainstream (Harrison Ford and Jet Li), a woman who fits the part of a pseudo-love interest (Carrie Fisher and Kerry Condon) and top notch supporting actors (James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman) to go with a well-told and engaging story. Unleashed was supposed to the movie that launched Jet Li from being just another martial artist in a growing field of skilled stars (Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow, Tony Jaa and others) into a bonafide superstar and yet it failed to cross $50 million worldwide.
Martial arts movies in America are in the same sort of niche genre that science fiction was before 1976, as even the very best doesn’t make extraordinary box office gains. A martial arts movie will generally make $40 million in a U.S theatrical run while even bad action movies can hit $100 million without blinking. For every quality martial arts movie like Kung Fu Hustle or Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior that fails to draw a large audience an awful film like Mr. & Mrs. Smith will make close to $200 million without a problem. Even the worst of the summer blockbuster action movies in 2005 (The Island and Stealth) both have outdrawn many of the highest grossing martial arts films domestically in the past decade.
Star Wars led the charge into mainstream success for science fiction as at the end of its original theatrical run it would be the highest grossing movie of all-time. And timing is everything, as after that science fiction would be more accessible to box office dollars. Martial arts movies seem to be heading toward this direction, waiting for a breakout movie of its own to bring whooping crane kicks into cinematic lore in the same manner that phaser guns are. And it’s easy to see, as the basics behind the film are easy enough to grasp for a mass audience.
Unleashed stars Li as Danny, a man trained to fight. He has been conditioned into becoming a deadly fighter while being raised like a dog by his master Bart (Bob Hoskins), leaving him with a collar and habits and raised as a human version of a fighting dog. He even comes complete with a collar; when removed it unleashes the deadly side of Danny onto whoever is in his path. When Danny escapes from his prison, he manages to fall under the care of a blind piano tuner named Sam (Freeman) and his stepdaughter Victoria (Condon). As he begins to relearn his humanity, to be accepted by someone as more than a glorified fighting dog, fate intervenes as his former master threatens his newfound life. Danny must become that which he used to be and fight back in a much different sort of Jet Li than has shown in the past. It is a martial arts film loaded up with dramatic appeal, as opposed to being just another action movie filled with a plot line that leads into extended fight sequences.
And it fails to leap from good to great because of this: it’s an uneven combination of drama and martial arts action. While in separate doses they would work on all sorts of levels, in the hands of a director whose major film credit to that point had been The Transporter and some music videos it fails because to interweave it requires much more touch than Letterrier has.
Letterrier knows what he is doing when it comes to filming the fight sequences and letting the physical nature of the movie come through. The action is shot in a much less stylized manner than usual in a martial arts film to match the gritty and more realistic fights. As he showed in both Transporter movies, he can shoot a fight sequence with the best of them.
However setting up the drama requires more of a touch than he has to his credit; credit having support like Freeman and Hoskins to be able to compensate. It is poorly setup and yet rescued to a large degree by having great talent around.
Unleashed is a good, not great, movie that might be the best of the three major martial arts movie releases of the year (Kung Fu Hustle and Ong Bank being the two others) and is a great martial arts movie but falls just a bit short of being a great movie, period.
Score : 8 / 10
Presented with a widescreen format and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Unleashed looks great. It is a world of dark colors and concepts, and everything is clear and defined.
With a top quality sound in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, the audio comes in clear and is well separated.
The Extras: An interview with director Louis Letterrier, Deleted scenes, a Serve No Master featurette, A Collar Comes Off featurette, “Atta Boy” by Massive Attack and “Unleash Me” by The RZA – Music Videos
Director Louis Letterrier: Unleashed is a perspective on the filming process by Letrerrier. Having previously helmed The Transporter, Letterrier talks about his experience with Li and how he wanted to shape the movie. Running about five minutes, nothing really deep is delved into.
Serve No Master featurette is a perspective about the characters from Jet Li and Bob Hoskins. It’s interesting to see Li’s perspective on being a characters and having to act, as opposed to making the martial arts the bulk of the movie. Juxtaposed with action sequences of the film, Li and Hoskins talk about what they wanted to accomplish and how they shot the movie. In between one of the early initial fights they show the little things that they did like how they shot it with how it translates into the film’s look. They also talk a little about Yeun Wo-ping, the Hong Kong kung fu filming expert who helped out. At around nine minutes in length, it ends just when it starts to really become fascinating.
The Collar Comes Off: Behind the Scenes of Unleashed is another featurette about the story with Morgan Freeman, Li and Hoskins talking about the development of the Danny character. It’s more of an extended combination of the director’s feature and the “Serve no master” featurette, except with Freeman talking about the sort of drama they had to create in certain scenes. Running around 12 minutes, it is interesting but doesn’t add anything that hasn’t already been said.
“Atta Boy” by Massive Attack and “Unleash Me” by The RZA – Music Videos
Score : 7.5 / 10