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June 17, 2005

Unleashed

Louis Leterrier - 2005
35mm film

The incredibly prolific Luc Besson has collaborated again with Jet Li. Unleashed is, to say the least, a better film than Kiss of the Dragon. While Besson wrote and directed, the actual director of record was Louis Leterrier. I am also assuming the credited "consultant" Robert Mark Kamen, who has written the past Besson English language films, also had a hand in the script.

The working title on the film was Danny the Dog. That title suggests some kind of kid friendly film with a canine hero. A more accurate title would be the very awkward Uncollared as Li wears a metal and leather collar that is removed before he fights. The story is about a man who has been raised to be a human attack dog. The film begins with several scenes of Li being set on Hoskins foes, bashing heads against walls and floors, throwing bodies out windows, arms and legs flying in attack. When gangster Bob Hoskins removes the collar from Jet Li, Li becomes a relentless killing machine. While waiting inside a warehouse for a signal, Li is befriended by a blind piano tuner. The piano tuner, Morgan Freeman, has entered unaware that Hoskins and gang are in another part of the warehouse. His kindness to Li is in direct contrast to the harshness of Hoskins. After an ambush directed at Hoskins, Li seeks out Freeman at the warehouse and begins a process of reclaiming his humaness.

In some ways the story for Unleashed is a revisiting of themes explored in Leon (The Professional). Both films are about differing concepts of family, biological and situational. Both films center on professional killers who are orphaned, are adopted by an older gangster, and find their humanity in their chance involvement with a person that they save. In Unleashed the themes are amplified as Li is simultaneously both a killer and an innocent, while Freeman, as Li's mentor in humanity, both saves Li and is saved by Li. In Leon, being human has cost Jean Reno is life, while in Unleased, Li regains his true sense of self.

There is one scene with all three principles together near the climax. Li is sandwiched between Hoskins and Freeman, about to kill the man who turned him into a dog. Hoskins continues to bring out the dog in the man, while Freeman appeals to Li's higher consciousness. The scene reminded me of an extreme version of the type of scene that appeared sometimes in older films and often in cartoons, particularly of Porky Pig torn between a tempting devil and self righteous angel.

The fight choreography was by Yuen Woo-ping, best known in the U.S. for his contributions to the Matrix series and the two Kill Bill films. There are no special effects here, nor is there any obvious wire work. Visually, the most interesting fight scene is near the end. Hoskins sets are very big man in white to fight Li. After running up and down staircases and across a rooftop, the two are in a very tight hallway. The space is just big enough to hold the two men standing, facing each other, body against body. Yuen is able to choreograph an astonishing number of ways the two can punch, pummel and kick each other within a confining space.
While the fight scenes are the main attraction for a film starring Li, Unleashed has a signicant number of quiet scenes. Much time is given to character development. The film works around Li's limited ability with English by having making his dialogue short and simple, and expressing himself more with facial expressions and body language. Whether Li will ultimately be able to transition himself from martial arts star to dramatic actor in non-Chinese language films remains to be seen. At the age of 42, Li is clearly looking to stretch out from being a kung fu hero.

Besson and Leterrier have Transporter 2 coming soon. I had the fortune of living on the street where some second unit work was shot. I will write more about that when that film is released. In the meantime, Unleashed is one of the best films written and produced by Luc Besson, and is as good as the films he's directed.

One may want to check out an interview with Louis Leterrier at chud.com. Leterrier points out that the American release of Unleashed is somewhat different from the European version, with some editing done on the dramatic scenes. Leterrier also states that after Transporter 2 he plans to make a film independent of Besson. That Leterrier is self disciplined to submerge his personality on behalf of Besson for three films indicates more promise once he separates from his mentor.

Posted by peter at June 17, 2005 04:24 PM