Unleashed is a gritty martial arts film written by Luc Besson and starring Jet Li. Unleashed was released back in 2005 but remains the best martial arts film I have ever seen. Alas, it does not get the credit it deserves.
Unleashed is a completely unique blend of the martial arts and British crime genres. Jet Li plays Danny, a martial artist that has been a London gangster’s attack dog from childhood.
The film is true to its setting but with inflections of the martial arts genre. The fight scenes are brutal and hard-hitting, every strike has weight to it. The intensity of the violence makes you want to look away at times.
The realities of the organised crime world are reflected in the harsh dialogue of the gangsters. Bob Hoskins brilliantly portrays a vile mob boss that exploits Danny’s fighting skills to assert dominance over his enemies. Louis Leterrier’s directing is superb, so much is said through the use of the camera and audio. An example is the introduction.
The camera focusses on Danny’s ears, eyes and mouth. Muffled noises can be heard from his surroundings but just barely. At this point in the film, he is a purely physical and sensory being. However, when his collar is on, his senses are dulled and he is barely concious.
When the gangster sets him loose by unlocking his collar, his pupils dilate, the sounds are now in sharp focus and the lights become flurouscent. He operates totally on his instincts which are heightened by the adrenaline rush he gets when the hunt is on. This is signalled by the click of the lock on his collar, he is like an animal.
This may sound like a macho affair but the film has a beautiful emotional core. Danny is a tragic character, he spent his whole life sleeping in a cell until the mob needed him to kill for them. He was starved of human interaction and intellectual nourishment. As a result, he is a man-child that has not developed even past the age of a five year old.
Sam, an old blind man played by Morgan Freeman takes Danny in. He and his daughter educate Danny, socialising and ingratiating him into society, giving him a chance. He has finally found the family he always yearned for but the syndicate don’t want to give up their weapon. His development and child-like wonder is brilliantly portrayed by Jet Li.
Rather than an action gimmick, the martial arts and choreography are used to enhance the story. Danny’s development is illustrated in the choreography. Initally, he fights with ferocity, bad intentions but by the third act, he pulls his punches. He is reluctant to fight because Sam and Victoria have made him civilised.
This story of redemption is almost flawless. The story, acting and directing work in tandem to create artistic beauty. Just like the inner workings of a piano.