Assault and Battersea
Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that's slightly rippled with a flat underside. Brain cells are strictly optional this week as we examine the latest offering from two of cinema's premier knuckleheads, Jet Li and Luc Besson. Well, that's probably a bit unfair, as both have been involved in making some rather good movies in the past - but then again they've both also been involved in some frightful yappers in their time. So, is their new film Unleashed (directed by Louis Leterrier) a triumphant fusion of Hero and Leon, or an appalling mixture of Lethal Weapon 4 and The Fifth Element?
This being a Besson-scripted movie it is of course a stylised and extremely violent thriller without, it must be said, much of a stranglehold on reality. The alternative title Danny the Dog sums up the premise rather well: Jet plays a guy called Danny who has been raised as a dog by gor-blimey Cockney gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins, slumming it). Bart has trained Danny to attack on command, which he appears to have to do rather a lot in the course of Bart's protection-racketeering lifestyle - this seems a bit contrived seeing as Bart is supposed to have been a senior crook for about thirty years, has he only just started the racket as a new thing? Anyway, eventually Bart and his other cronies get very seriously shot up by an ambitious rival low-life, leaving Danny to wander off on his own. And who should he fall in with but blind piano-tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman, slumming it too) and his perky stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) - look, I'm really not making this up. Sam rehabilitates Danny, and soon it looks like only a hugely implausible reappearance by Bart and his crew can stop Danny from forging a new life and leaving the way of regular and protracted brutality behind. And you'll never guess what happens then.
(All this supposedly takes place in Glasgow, by the way. All the Scots must be away while it's happening as everyone in it's either Cockney, American, Hong Kong Chinese, or Emma Thompson's mum.)
It has to be said that this is a very silly thriller-cum-kung fu movie redeemed by the presence in it of two formidably talented actors. Having said that, neither Freeman nor Hoskins is especially well-served, as both their roles are rather two-dimensional. Morgan Freeman can probably get away with doing a piece of fluff like this as he's already contributed to several impressive films this year alone, but Bob Hoskins hasn't had a good meaty role in a high-profile movie for absolutely ages, which is a crying shame. However even here he does a terrific job of investing Bart with what humour, pathos and reality he can, and ends up probably sneaking the acting honours. Then again, this is the kind of movie where the actors are cast just to recycle their standard screen personae - so Morgan Freeman's character is a font of undiluted wisdom and decency, Hoskins does his snarling Cockney brute from The Long Good Friday yet again, and Jet Li kicks everyone's head in. It's not so much a distillation of their best-known traits as a puree.
But it's a film that sits easily in the Besson canon, as several of his better movies revolve around loners who are forced by events to rediscover their human sides - it's the theme at the heart of Leon and The Transporter. Unleashed is this story taken one step further, arguably into the realms of the bizarre. I'm tempted to say that any film which makes a major scene out of Morgan Freeman and Jet Li going on a shopping trip to their local branch of Spar (Morgan spends his time sweet-talking the checkout girls while Jet happily drums on their melons) is worth seeing just for novelty value alone. The long and violence-free middle section is full of this sort of thing, it is incredibly and unashamedly sentimental and jars considerably with the extended fight scenes which essentially bookend the movie.
That said, there are few things in the cinema as reliably exhilarating as watching Jet Li whirl into action and the action sequences here are no exception. A daft subplot about pit fighting permits Besson and Leterrier to sneak in a set-piece ruck as good as anything in Li's English-language movies, but all the rest are top stuff, particularly the climactic encounter between Li and Michael Lambert (which culminates in possibly the world's first kung fu fight to the death in a toilet cubicle). The fights are what this film is ultimately all about and they don't disappoint. The rest of it is admittedly extremely unconvincing, but Freeman and Hoskins always keep it watchable and it's very difficult to actually dislike. Louis Leterrier does a very competent job with both the action and the dialogue scenes. He's clearly a cut above the usual minions Besson gets in to direct his movies lately, which makes me particularly happy that his next project is not only a Jason Statham movie, but - could it be true? - an actual sequel to 2002's The Transporter. Yes, there is a God! As for Unleashed - well, it probably won't win many awards, but it will probably make its intended audience very happy.