Danny (Li) has lived his life with his "Uncle" Bart (Bob Hoskins) a fiery gangster who has trained Danny to be an enforcer and do his dirty work for him. In truth Bart has basically treated Danny like an animal--a dog to be exact collar and all--not a person. As soon as Danny's job of savagely beating those who had "wronged" his uncle is complete he goes back to his dark dank quarters. One day upon finding a benevolent blind man Sam (Morgan Freeman) playing a piano Danny discovers that he's more than merely a dog. Sam takes Danny into his home and teaches him about the piano and human relationships with the help of his step-daughter (Kerry Condon). All seems to be going well but the collar wrapped around Danny's neck is a link to his former violent life--and of course Bart. Heading down that path of redemption Danny winds up reluctantly going back to his uncle albeit in a different frame of mind. The tension builds as a massive showdown between Danny and Bart becomes imminent. It is only after his collar is taken off that Danny is unleashed.
It's usually not Jet Li's job to exude acting chops just execute the karate kind. But while the main thrust of Unleashed is the highly choreographed and entertaining fight sequences that show off his unbelievable skills the actor still tries his hand at keeping it real. Thankfully Unleashed is a decided improvement over most of Li's other nonsensical American movies (Cradle 2 the Grave anyone?) and is tailor-made for his broken English and acting range. Freeman on the other hand lends such an air of authenticity and workmanship to Unleashed that one wonders how the they were able to reel in the venerable actor hot off his Oscar-winning performance in Million Dollar Baby. He is simply perfect as the soft-spoken mild-mannered Sam. Then there is Hoskins. The robust British actor has had his fair share of Freeman-like success and has rightfully earned that same class of respect. But lately he seems to be taking any roles he can get no matter the size (see Son of the Mask. On second thought don't). It's clear playing Bart is a no-brainer for him but he tends to go unnecessarily over the top.
Director Louis Leterrier shows a knack for the action suggestive of a veteran filmmaker even though he's only made two movies. His first film 2002's The Transporter was a relative hit and as far as straight action movies and directorial debuts go it was a thing of beauty. The same can more or less be said for Unleashed. Simply put if this movie fails on any front it will not be due to a lack of blood sweat and tears from Leterrier. He captures both the fight sequences and the occasional poignancy with stark eloquence with every little detail in place. And the theatrics of it all--i.e. special effects loud-as-hell sound effects--doesn't hurt either. The Japanese-revenge genre is executed to a tee but he doesn't let it overstep its boundaries and turn the film into a cliché. It's not an easy thing to do and many directors would be unable to solve that conundrum. The only disparity between this project and his last is that he has probably less to work with this time around yet he has much more to lose. It's safe to say he does not crack under the pressure.
Top Bejing cop Liu Jian (Jet Li) conveniently called "Johnny" for us Americans is called by French police to capture a Chinese druglord hiding out in Paris. Johnny teams with a devious and dishonest French cop Richard (Tcheky Karyo) who double-crosses him leaving him framed for a murder and on the lam. Not only is Richard head of the Parisian police he happens to be the City of Lights' leading pimp and he's forced ex-junkie Jessica (Bridget Fonda) into cheap whoredom by holding her young daughter hostage. Johnny befriends Jessica and together they go after Richard armed with her street smarts and his--acupuncture needle bracelet? No kidding it's Johnny's secret weapon that he uses to put his enemies out of action.
Let's face it Jet Li's way better at kung fu than tongue fu--the poor guy couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. But like his character Johnny Li is just a good guy trying to do the best job he can and you have to give him some credit for trying hard. Besides he's a damn good martial artist. Karyo is way over the top chewing the scenery like it was his last meal--he is impossibly vile killing and maiming just 'cause. But Fonda takes the cake for worst performance as--would you believe--a whiny melodramatic "farmer's daughter from North Dakota" turned out against her will. (Honestly what's her track record lately? Monkeybone? Lake Placid? Somebody call John Travolta--they've found his next leading lady!)
Director Chris Nahon known for making commercials begs borrows and steals from Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita starring none other than Bridget Fonda)--ooh guess what? Besson is KOD's co-writer and producer. Well at least the Nahon-Besson team could have connected the dots before trying to make the audience do it for them. Nothing's explained; even the most obvious questions go unanswered. Why is the bad guy so bad? Where are the cops as a fight rages on and on in the police headquarters? Not to mention these martial arts scenes (why else would you watch this? Certainly not for Li's "acting") lack creative flowing choreography and instead are choppily cut gratuitously vicious and sometimes downright gross (like a guy gets two chopsticks to the throat) acts of violence.