a.k.a. Danny the Dog
starring Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon
screenplay by Luc Besson, Jet Li & Steven Chasman
directed by Louis Leterrier
by Walter Chaw Though it was written by Luc Besson and directed by Besson protégé Louis Leterrier, Unleashed could slide into Walter Hill's portfolio with almost no tweaking. (A double-feature with Hill's Undisputed would make for indispensable viewing from the front lines of the culture wars.) Unleashed is interested in Hill's tent poles of social class and race, sprinkling in healthy doses of ugly machismo en route to what's best described as a virile noir fairy tale painted in shades of brown and green. Tight as a drum, the picture also reminds of an adult-themed anime--a science-fiction manga about a dog that learns to be a man under the tender ministrations of a kindly old piano tuner and his plucky schoolgirl daughter. Complicating Unleashed is its vision of a world in which white men are rich and corrupt, women (especially artists) are doomed to a life of prostitution, and a Chinese guy fitted with a dog collar shuffling meekly behind a white person is a sight that causes no head to turn. This world, of course, is the Hollywood mainstream.
Treated like the canine sidekick in American films, Jet Li expresses a little subtextual disgust as he plays a semi-literal dog, Danny, a guy around Li's age who, Kaspar Hauser-like, has been robbed of his humanity through years of sensory deprivation. Danny is a trained assassin on the leash of Glaswegian crime lord Bart (Bob Hoskins), navigating his way through elaborate fight sequences choreographed by master Yuen Wo Ping--the best of them an extended battle royale in the claustrophobic confines of a toilet stall that reminds of the gunfight Takeshi Kitano stages in an elevator in Sonatine. As soon as Bart takes off the collar, Danny loses the wide-eyed innocence. In terms of Western cinema seeing Chinese men as sexual ciphers, comic relief, and kung fu masters, the title Unleashed alludes to Danny being set loose to wreak violent mayhem and, in a sweet relationship with one of his rescuers, sexual mayhem, too.* What's scarier to the ruling class than a sexually-unfettered celestial with an underage girlfriend (Victoria (Kerry Condon)) and a black, blind mentor (Sam (Morgan Freeman))?
Unleashed is brutal and unapologetic. The fight scenes are Li's best since his incandescent rise in Hong Kong. (I didn't know how much I wanted to see Li wield a sledgehammer against a quartet of opponents until I saw it.) And though he's less sure as the whipped dog of his Danny's collared persona, there is an allegorical quality to the film that tilts the cheese towards poignant. In flashback we learn that Danny's mother was a gifted piano student who rejected a young Bart's advances, while the epilogue involves young Victoria, also a gifted piano student, playing exactly the same Mozart sonata Danny's mother played on the day of her execution. It's the world's most Freudian piano recital, sure, but it's also the moment most likely to be misread as maudlin: More than race and condescension, Unleashed offers the disquieting suggestion that women are helpless but to be ground up and spit back for the sport of rich white men. The film's only other female characters, a pair of hookers Bart takes back to his lair, both--troublingly--interrupt their congress when surprised by the sight of Danny.
What should inspire the most reflection, however, is the way that viewers will react to Danny in his passive mode. As he hides under beds, takes treats from the hand of his handlers, asks for a piano as a reward for murdering a stranger, and tastes ice cream for the first time, the predominant response of the audience at large is to coo and sigh as though this forty-two-year old, abused, and deeply disturbed character--equipped, as it were, with a kill switch--were an adorable toddler. Unleashed, then, has cast Li as what Chinese actors are primarily cast as in Western cinema: sexually immature, childlike, mysterious, and vicious. He's Long Duck Dong and Mr. Miyagi in one lean package, equipped with a collar and led around like an animal for the bemusement, as he always is, of masters who would see him triumph against all comers in staged matches whilst offering no challenge to their virility outside the ring. When was the last time you saw a Chinese man as the romantic lead in an English-language film? The most telling mano a mano of the picture, then, is between Danny and a giant albino dressed in white wielding a knife in an apartment full of pale plaster casts. They break shit up real good, as you might imagine--and so does Unleashed, a picture in the middle of all this nihilism that earns a roar of approval for an act of mercy (compare to the rancorous Star Wars: Episode III), and the first happy surprise of 2005. Originally published: May 13, 2005.