Monday, May 16, 2005

Unleashed, indeed

The new Jet Li/Luc Besson/Louis Leterrier opus, Unleashed, is such a rich cinematic experience, one almost wonders how it ever got made in the first place. A brutal, yet thoughtful, action picture in the vein of Besson's La Femme Nikita and Leon, Unleashed is the ultimate hybrid genre picture.

The story of Danny (Li), a Chinese boy raised from a toddler by a brutal loan shark (Bob Hoskins), trained as a fighting dog, brutalized and demeaned his whole life. With a metal dog collar around his throat, Danny becomes a hound from hell when the collar is removed, doing whatever his "master" says.

When he is freed one day (by an assassination attempt by a "business associate" of his master), Danny begins a new life with a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman, sturdy, sagely as ever) and his step-daughter. They teach him, quite beautifully, of the wondrous little joys of life, something he never knew before. When his master comes to reclaim him, Danny fights with all his might to leave behind his violent past.

Li, as an actor, has never been more effective. His turn in Unleashed is astonishing, subtle and rich, as great as any other dramatic actor has delivered this year.

Leterrier (The Transporter) has proven himself striking genre formalist. Unleashed is a vast improvement over the entertaining but flawed The Transporter. He has crafted a stylish, affecting thriller, the year's best film thusfar.

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