I’m a bit late on this one now, but a friend and I caught Unleashed last Friday and, well, it’s not much to write home about. As you’ve probably figured out from the previews, Jet Li plays Bob Hoskin’s trained pet enforcer, conditioned to beat the everloving heck out of sundry ne’er-do-wells whenever his collar is removed. (He spends the rest of his time living in a cage and poring mournfully over an A-B-C book.) One day, however, Li is inadvertently released into the wild, whereupon he encounters blind piano tuner Morgan Freeman and learns the ways of life and family (and, yes, even love)…until his old master comes a-knockin’.
That’s it in a nutshell, but it makes even less sense on film than it does on paper. Occasionally, Jet Li in the early “trained” scenes shows less capability for independent thought than Berkeley — he stands blankly as his erstwhile mates are attacked, so long as the collar is on. Yet, he also seems to be a fully capable human — understanding relatively complex instructions and distinguishing readily between combatants and non-combatants (and between thugs and leaders.) So what is he, really? Here’s an example of the problem: Apparently piano music soothes the savage beast, so Freeman and his step-daughter (Kerry Condon) take it upon themselves to teach Li how to play. “Notes are symbols,” Condon explains to Li, who gets it right away. But if he doesn’t know what “note” means (or “ice cream,” or “melon,” etc.) why would he know what a “symbol” is? Who knows – maybe Oliver Sacks runs into this kinda thing every day, but it still doesn’t hold up.
Of course, whether or not the story makes sense is completely moot — We paid $10 to see Jet Li kick ass. And, to its credit, the movie delivers right away, opening with Li taking out a sizable gang in inmitable Yuen Woo Ping fashion. All the fight scenes are extremely kinetic — there’s a scene near the end where Li faces off against another random kung-fu master in a bathroom, and it may just eclipse the similar Morpheus-Agent Smith fight in the original Matrix (also choreographed by Yuen.) But sadly, the fights in Unleashed are just too few and far between. Instead, we’ve got a solid hour in the middle of Li (who’s very good throughout) discovering the supermarket and learning table manners.
In short, if you need a patently ridiculous plot device just to get your kung-fu movie off the ground, so be it — bring on the fighting. But please don’t skip on the melees to build your movie around said plot device, ’cause, frankly, that dog won’t hunt.