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Jet Li Could Kick Your Ass

I can remember seeing Lethal Weapon 4 for the first time and being blown away by the action sequences that introduced us westerners to the skill of Jet Li.

Since then he’s made a string of action movies, some good, some not so good – but each of them harnessed Li’s greatest asset – his fighting ability. But if history is anything to go by being known as a pure action movie star gains you very little in the way of respect in the long term.. Just ask Dolph Lundgren!

So what can we expect from Li in his latest: UNLEASHED? Read on and I’ll tell you!

I can’t think of another action movie star who has successfully made the transition from ‘Action movie star’ to ‘Actor’. I seriously can’t, but that’s what I walked away from UNLEASHED thinking.

I knew, from the visual quality of the previews that have been circulating the net and, more recently, appearing on television and prior to other movies that I’ve seen, that this film was going to be something more than ‘just’ an action film. Having seen those previews, I was also pretty much aware of the plot of the movie.. No, really, I mean it! The whole plot of UNLEASHED is right there in the promos and, while I didn’t know that going into the theatre, it didn’t take too long to realise that it had all been laid bare. Yet, despite knowing the plot and as a result being one step ahead of the story, I still found UNLEASHED to be a surprisingly gripping and emotional movie.

Written by Luc Besson and directed by his long time associate, Louis Leterrier, UNLEASHED is an unusually textured story which is so varied in its styling that it makes it extremely hard to categorise. Don’t let all this talk of emotion and texture fool you! UNLEASHED has some of the most sensational, testicle shattering fight sequences that I’ve ever had the pleasure of wincing my way through!

Raised, virtually, as a dog, Danny (Jet Li) is used as a weapon by his ruthless and blood thirsty ‘uncle’ Bart (Bob Hoskins). Trained to fight like something beyond human, Danny is shown no affection and communicates very little with Bart and the thugs who work as his debt collectors. When Bart feels that negotiations with those who owe him money have stalled, he removes Danny’s collar, a psychological cue, and sets him upon his adversaries like a crazed animal.

Anyone who has seen a Jet Li movie before knows that he is an incredibly skilled, fluid and acrobatic fighter. UNLEASHED has Li’s blistering skills working once again with BLACK MASK’s action director, Woo-ping Yuen (Who’s other works include The Matrix films, Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle) and the resulting sequences are both mind blowing and bone crunching. Watch out for an original sequence involving Li and an opponent inflicting untold damage on each other in the confines of an apartment bathroom (toilet)… But don’t let all this talk of broken bones and testicle separations fool you! UNLEASHED uses its strong character development and deliberately uneven pacing to draw you in on an emotional level. Fight sequences during the latter scenes in the movie have far greater power and intensity, from a viewers standpoint, because of the investment you have in the characters by that stage.

The real surprise in this movie is Jet Li. At the beginning Li manages to communicate a real sense of loneliness. He is displaced and appears even more distant, glazed over and detached than Paris Hilton. Much of Li’s performance is achieved without the aid of dialogue relying almost entirely on his ability to communicate his displacement and subsequent awakening using mannerisms and physical expression. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t see Jet Li’s name carved onto a gold statue just yet, but in UNLEASHED we are given clear notice that Li has upped his game and has indeed, not just started, but made huge inroads on his journey from ‘action star’ to ‘respected actor’.

Probably the greatest complement I can give Li as an actor in this film is to say that he holds his own in the company of the shamefully underrated Bob Hoskins and the brilliant minimal style of Morgan Freeman. Freeman plays Sam, a blind piano tuner who is raising his stepdaughter alone after the death of his wife. A sensitive man, Sam takes Danny into his home and allows him to begin a normal life without pressing for answers about who he is or where he came from. You get a sense that Sam himself has been ‘lost’ at times in his own life, perhaps at the time of his wife’s death, it’s unexplained (however, it’s not a loose end) but there is an undeniable connection between the two and it’s not long before Danny, Sam and Victoria (Sam’s stepdaughter) become something resembling a family.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you know, or guess the plot of UNLEASHED, because it’s one of those stories that is about characters and emotional development and attachment. It’s more about how people deal with events than it is about the events themselves. UNLEASHED manages to do the seemingly impossible, it crosses over from action based genre into an emotional drama.. The problem is, when it crosses back into the hard core action towards the end of the film, you’re right in the thick of it with an understanding of what Danny is now fighting for!

I think I have dust in my eye or something… Shut up!

[Originally written for EON and published at Gamespace on Fri, 19 Aug 2005]

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