Tuesday, September 06, 2005


'Like My Sainted Mother Used To Say - If You Get 'Em Early Enough, The Possibilities Are Endless': A Film Review of 'Unleashed'

Jet Li is clearly an extremely capable martial artist, but he has one major problem in the film industry. As an actor for whom English is a second language, Li struggles with the convincing delivery of dialogue-intense roles. Consequently, film-makers have been trying to find roles for Li that showcase his obvious fighting talent, but minimise his speaking time on screen. 'Unleashed', directed by Louis Letterier, who had only previously directed 'The Transporter 2', a no-brainer action sequel, has teamed up with Luc Besson, director of Leon, who wrote the script for T2 too, on this project. Here is the idea Besson had for keeping Li out of the words:

Danny, played by Li, has been brought up as an attack dog by his 'uncle' Bart, played by Bob Hoskins in a scenery-chewing performance. 'Uncle' Bart is a gangster, apparently involved in racketeering and loan-sharking, and he uses the lethal Danny as a weapon when his other business tactics fail. After one job goes awry, Danny meets Sam, played by Morgan Freeman. Sam is a blind piano-tuner, and with his step-daughter Victoria, he helps Danny discover a hidden love of music from his infancy. What follows is essentially a battle for Danny's soul between Hoskins and Freeman.

Bart controls Danny by means of a collar. Collar on, he's docile. Collar off, he's a killer.

Obviously, it's complete tosh. However, it's enjoyable nonetheless. Enjoyable tosh, if you will. The astoundingly random plot is actually what saves the film from being a total disaster, since it requires such a suspension of disbelief anyway that it's almost possible to ignore the holes in the plot that are so big you could drive an eighteen-wheeler through them. Unfortunately, it's only almost possible. The errors and goofs really are astounding.

Danny shakes hands with Sam upon their first meeting. This might be the strangest part Freeman has ever played.

First off, although the film is set in Glasgow, not one single character has a Glaswegian accent. It might, I suppose, be conceivably possible that Bart and his gang have come from the East End - remember, this is Bob Hoskins we're talking about - although this is never mentioned in the plot. It could just be within the limits of credulity that all of Bart's clients could have settled there from other parts of the country, though this would be the most astounding coincidence. However, I simply refuse to believe that the manageress of the local Spar supermarket would have a Home Counties accent. I'm sorry, but no. No, too, to the idea that Sam and Victoria, who, we are told, hail from New York, would have a choice between Kansas and Glasgow for a school where she can continue her study of classical pianism. You're telling me there are no music schools in New York? Or at least closer than Kansas or Glasgow? Or how about the fact that nobody in the film dies in a car crash - and there are several - no matter how serious, but a blow to the head with a plant pot can be fatal.

Li enjoys some soup doggy-style with his foster family Freeman and Kerry Condon, who plays Victoria. She'll next be on your tellybox in BBC/HBO costume drama 'Rome', a role in which she spends half the time in the buff. Ah, the classics!

I have another, even bigger problem with this film, which lies in the quote I have used as a title for this review. Psychologist and founder of behaviourism, John B Watson, wrote this in the early part of last century:

'Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.'*

This quote seems to me remarkably similar to that line of Besson's, uttered twice by Bart in the film. Watson, and other behaviourists such as B F Skinner, rejected the idea that any of these attributes mattered, since they were utterly convinced that environmental factors were the only factors that mattered in the rearing of a child. Skinner even went so far as to write a book on child-rearing that advocated never placating a crying child, since that would only reward him or her for crying, and would cause them to be softer in later life.

John B Watson, founding father of the now rejected concept of behaviourism.

Nowadays, nobody takes behaviourism seriously. Scientific advances in studying the brain reveal that some abilities and tendencies are indeed inate, and that to a certain extent the probabilities of human behaviour lie in the genes inside our head, rather than the circumstances we face, although a combination of both is a more correct way of viewing behaviour.

Besson, however, seems to be writing 'Unleashed' from a distinctly behaviourist point of view. Although we find out late in the film that Danny has his love of music thanks to the artistic ability of his mother, which in itself would suggest some kind of genetic propensity mixed with environmental experience, we are asked to believe that Bart could train this humanity out of him. That, in itself, is just about believable, but it's a step too far to accept that the Fankenstein's monster that is Danny the Dog would not turn on his master at some point, when we consider his propensity for rebellion at the end of the film.

In Li's rebellion, he is faced with Bart's new weapon, a bald ninja dressed in pyjamas. They have an epic battle, ably choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping.

By the time I saw 'Unleashed', the broadsheet journalists had already panned it, meaning it had a whole host of one and two star reviews. Yet, if you ignore those problems that I've mentioned, and the two-shift gearbox that is it's pacing, then there are some positives to take out of the experience.

Most prominent amongst these are the performances of the three principle potagonists. Obviously, Morgan Freeman is one of the best actors working today, and even on cruise control he can shine through a role. Meanwhile, I'm a big fan of Bob Hoskins, mostly for 'The Long Good Friday', which I consider one of my top-ten films of all time, but also for his other roles, for instance in 'Brazil' and 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' He really is a much under-appreciated actor, and he shows in this film that he can really go off the handle, doing that thing he does where he rolls his head into his shoulders, making it look like he has no neck, so he becomes a fiery, runaway ball of fury, somewhat reminicent of Ben Kingsley's performance in 'Sexy Beast.'

'You're MY dog!' Hoskins is as off-the-leash as Li in this performance.

What of Li, you ask? Well, he works in this role. If he's been somewhat annoying in the past, lacking as he does the cheeky-chappy charm of Jackie Chan, here he comes across as both talented and vulnerable, and he does a fine job of somewhat limiting material, for I really don't feel Letterier does his actors any favours. Far too much of his direction is film school cliche, like thunder storms in moments of tension, for example. Fortunately for him, his technical inability is masked by Yuen Wo Ping's masterful martial arts choreography, which really does shine, and a wonderful score by Massive Attack.

One last thing I would say is this. I watch a lot of films, and I've started to find recently that a lot of films don't hold my attention for very long, even if they're very good, and I have to watch them over several sessions, as I had to do with the excellent 'Million Dollar Baby.' 'Unleashed', though frequently silly, ridiculous and cliched, never lost my full attention for a second. It might not be the best film ever, but it's definitely worth a look, especially for some genuinely smart fight scenes.

*Watson, 1924.

"T2 too"
Tea tu-tu!
Tee to two!

ANwyay.....I loved this review kinda thing. I enjoyed the bits about behaviourism, but I gotta say that as a popcorn movie I don't think there's much justification for bringing on the continuity police. But then again, you said as much yourself.
So I agree!
This movie is in the same chategory as Blade and Big Hit in the great pantheon of stupid, fun, action movies.
(Although the Big Hit was flippin' hilarious)
Ah yes, Brazil. De Niro as a renegade plumber causing Hoskins to drown in faecal matter. Genius!

I have known two piano tuners in my time and they've both been blind. In that respect at least it sounds like Unleashed is realistic.
Just got to aplaud your devotion to the IMDB! That site is a geek's paradise! trivia galore!

Case in point: I was convinced that the bloke who played Arnie's neighbour in 'Jingle all the Way' was Troy Mclure from the Simpsons (well his voice anyway) and the IMDB proved me right...if only i had friends to brag to... and yes i do have too much time on my hands!!
SafeTInspector -

Change of picture! I like it. I take your point about continuity, and I do try to make allowances, but these were some big holes. Still, I guess I'm more pernickety than most people.

I never did get on very well with 'Blade', but 'Big Hit' was superb. It was a real tidy, no nonsense action comedy, and sometimes, just sometimes, I get really in the mood for stuff being blown up.

Anyway, if you like my reviews, these are my previous best.

Hungbunny -

Brazil is, of course, one of the best films of all time. I'll put a review up eventually. Let's face it, when else could you both Bob De Niro and Bob Hoskins?

This might be incredibly stupid and/or prejudiced, but mightn't it be the case that blind people are better at piano tuning as their other senses become better to compensate?

Actually, the decision to make Sam blind was made by Freeman himself, who believed it would help Sam 'see' the music-loving inner-child in Danny. So there you go.

happyviolet -

The IMDb is the most useful site on the web, without question. My friend hadn't seen it before when I showed it to her, and she's spent ages looking up childhood memories on there. It really is nostalgia central. I could spend all day there.
It might also be the case that a lot of piano tuners get blinded while doing their jobs. Those strings are strung incredibly tight, and if one were to snap...
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