Unleashed is a hard core martial arts action thriller with hints of an empathetic drama about an enslaved man called Danny (Jet Li) set in Glasgow. Under the control of a malicious loan shark Bart (Bob Hoskins) his secret weapon is mentally controlling Danny by unleashing a metal collar around his neck that results in a violent beating. However when the collar is back on, Danny is a harmless, withdrawn individual with little knowledge of the world around him. Enslaved from childhood Danny is raised and treated like a human attack dog. Growing up in a world of violence and brutality Danny escapes his captors and is saved by a blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and starts a new life.
One of the noticeable aspects that you can’t but notice with Li or anyone with English not being their native language is the accent. From the nameless assassin in Yimou Zhang’s Hero (2002) to depicting the life of Huo Yuanjia in Ronny Yu’s Fearless (2006) his deep firm voice can be as intimidating as his swordsmanship skills. However in his English speaking films like Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die (2000) or James Wong’s The One (2001) no matter how skilled of a fighter he may be, his high pitched accent would at times ruin the illusion. In Unleashed Li worked with little dialogue not because of his accent but rather a more gripping way to portray Danny as a vulnerable, introverted, recluse. However, when unchaining Danny it sheds a different perception of our charmingly awkward hermit. We see the brutal ferocity, kicking, pounding, screaming and eye gouging skilled maniac.
Jet Li’s fighting technique is a cross between, Judo, Wushu, Kung Fu and a whole lot of ass kicking! Releasing Danny is a perfect metaphor for unleashing the carnage and grittily raw and hard core violence. However it is not all savage beatings and fist pumping mayhem. Danny’s character arc that unfolds is a touching story of a savage beast that slowly reclaims his humanity. From the very beginning we see a ravaged man unleash his brutality with electrifying energy and overall madness. But the brutal warrior is not just an insane fighter but rather a skilled warrior that can get out of any situation. Using his environment to his advantage, Danny’s parkour skills are unquestionable and a fine example of the parkour philosophy, which is seen as freedom of expression in controlled environments. Using only his body and the surroundings, Danny propels his body with such momentum that he can jump from room to room and building to building. Playing a cat and mouse game with his pursuers. Almost like a typical Jackie Chan movie.
Unleashed shows us that by fusing Asian martial arts and Western action films together that the outcome is an experience that both martial art fans and action junkies would be pleased with. It has all the martial arts elements with our Chinese film actor and Wushu champion Jet Li, in a film written by Luc Besson who directed fantastic action films like Léon: The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997). The core to the film is the fighting choreography by Yeun Wo-ping, that gave Unleashed that important Kung Fu atmosphere of kicks, twists and improvisations.
The combination of having a writer with a history of well received action films working alongside a hero from a martial arts background, and also with the phenomenal choreography, it makes for a beautiful amalgamation of Western action films and the Far East martial arts traditions and techniques, all in a single film. Its compassionate drama gives a raw atmosphere for a good story plot, however the story does tend to get in the way of just wanting to see Jet Li kick some ass and pull off some insane parkour skills.