If I were Jet Li, if I were someone’s dog, someone’s “bitch”, I’d want to kill that person too. If someone said they “mounted” my mother every day, “had her” her silly and then killed her, I’d want to kill that person as well. If that person who killed my only family then took me and made me their “dog” their to kick around, to shit on, to collect debts and to generally kick-ass when needed, I’d be more than a little bit angry. I’d be furious. I might even be as angry as Jet Li proves he can be in the film Unleashed.
Of course, there must be opposites to make a film work. There must be Bob Hoskins too perfectly cast as the bad guy with a Cockney accent and who sports an ever-present white suit and rides in an-always white car and who opposite the overly concerned and nurturing, wise and sage as ever Morgan Freeman. Freeman plays the role of a blind piano tuner who lives with his step-daughter whose parents are both dead.
Now you know the main characters. The rest of the characters in this story are simply filler. They are there to be killed in debt collecting fights in the beginning, fights to the death for money, thugs and etc. They are the dispensable, the people who come and go and truthfully, those we cannot differentiate for not only do they mostly look the same, they act and are the same and, of course, their fate is the same; they are mere pawns to be killed by Jet Li, or at least, in the beginning they are.
But Danny, Jet Li’s name in this film, he literally belongs to Hoskins, or Uncle Bart as he calls him and he gets nothing from what he does, from the beatings, the degradation. He sleeps in a cage under the floor with his old teddy bear hanging from the ceiling and a child’s alphabet book as his only comforts. Danny is only let out of his cage when his owner sets him out to beat up those he needs beaten to collect his money or debts. Danny isn’t big in size, but what he lacks in size, he more than compensates in sheer skill and to watch Jet Li’s moves is simply amazing. It is almost as if the film had been sped up and while watching it, someone made the important and smart observation that not only were the moves good, but the moves were even better when in the reality of filmmaking, he cannot actually hit the person but must still make it look as if he were still hitting them. That takes skill.
Eventually, during a job of course, Danny comes across an old antiques shop where he meets blind piano-tuner Morgan Freeman, who, in Morgan Freeman-movie-style will be his salvation. He will become friends with Freeman who after one-too many fights, Danny will be taken in by. He awakens , naturally frightened and unsure of his surroundings but still somehow knowing his situation is gentler and safer than before.
For a time, things are fine and he lives well with Freeman and his step-daughter with a minor subplot of a schoolgirl / schoolboy crush which may or may not work depending on your age (at my age, I admit, it seemed a bit silly albeit still sweet), but of course, it is inevitable that one of Uncle Bart’s henchmen will run into him and send a crew to collect him.
This film is a struggle about freedom and capture and to really know what that means, what it must mean to be someone’s dog, someone’s bitch, you really need to watch this film and understand. It even made me rethink the way we treat our own animals, because if this is the way we treat dogs, kicking them down flights of stairs (as I once saw my stepfather do this to my dog Turkey whom I loved to no end and I can tell you, it was painful to even watch and I sat in the back of the car wanting to kill him the whole time after that and never felt the same way about him again.) Dogs are not meant to be kicked no more than people are or degraded.
There are few problems with this film, the all too obvious location details: this is supposedly Edinborough yet nobody speaks with a Scottish accent and everyone seems to be Cockney or Londoners – so how they wound up in an Edinborough that lacks a single Scotsman is beyond me, or perhaps we just never come across one? Secondly, Freeman is American and speaks of sending his daughter to school in Kansas at one point but then obviously decided on a private school in Scotland instead. So we have a mix of people here in Scotland yet not a single Scot that I could tell. The license plates are British, so where the hell are we? We’re somewhere in England to be sure, but where exactly I don’t know and it seems far-fetched that Freeman would be there. What does seem reasonable is that perhaps they cast Freeman who would not make as much sense with a Scottish brogue or hired a bunch of actors who lacked the ability to do convincing Scottish accents yet for some reason wanted the film set in Scotland. Perhaps this is the kind of detail only a true Scotswoman like myself would sort through and wonder about, I’m not sure.
Danny will have his come-uppance and will find out the truth about his past and how it is not what it had seemed. He is told of his mother she was a “whore” and yet Uncle Bart was sort of in love with her and she was the one and when she died, he took Danny in as a gesture of love, Uncle Bart tells him. At one point saying, “In family, you need a little tragedy to bring everybody back together.” As Hoskins/Uncle Bart says to his goons, “get ‘em young enough and the possibilities are endless” said his sainted mother, he tells us.
In the unrated version, there is a far amount of partial nudity for no obvious reason other than the obvious (oh, you know exactly what I mean). Lots of gratuitous scenes of Uncle Bart about to get laid or getting laid and some woman exposing her jiggling, unloosed breasts gladly for the camera as her skirt is hiked up (frustratingly for Hoskins, every woman seems to run far away from him before he can really get any as they are all freaked out by one thing or another). And then there’s the required shower scene partial nudity. A woman in the shower, singing to herself, breasts exposed when Danny, who, toward the end is being chased by thugs just happens to run through her apartment.
To be fair, I haven’t seen the rated version, I wonder if it is as full of what is essentially gratuitous nudity for the under 17 crowd or the horny over 17 crowd who like to mix their martial arts with some nudity, which even I have to admit, sort of go hand-in-hand .
But again, all that said, the film still works well, provided you are willing to overlook those minor details that don’t make sense. How breasts really fit into the plot or how these women figure in other than as sexual objects remains a mystery. The only woman, or rather, girl, with anything to say is Morgan Freeman’s young stepdaughter who never seems to kept quiet with her blathering on, and I mean this in a sweet sort of way – she’s a good egg, just gregarious, and no, she does not show off her breasts (one of the few women who does not. The only other woman I can think of is the shop-counter woman who speaks very little) and her role is a minor one. Just as there may be so-called chick flicks, then this may be a boy flick, but that said, I still liked it, so perhaps it’s just a flick that transcends and defies simple categorization.
Danny will be given the chance to kill Uncle Bart who, as Danny has him by the throat tells him, that his, the world in which he is a god and being a dog is “the only world you’ll ever understand…” when trying to convince Danny to “come home” and “well make the world simple again: you, me, and our cozy little life.” But it will be Morgan freeman of course, our omniscient good guy who tries to prevent Danny from killing Uncle Bart with his pithy and clever and casual, “that man can talk some serious shit.”
All things considered, there is a deep sadness that pervades this film and though it may seem hokey in places, the melancholy and our identification with Danny far surpass any plot misgivings or holes or conceits that do not seem to quite work. To see a grown man reduced to the status of a dog is enough to make anyone think bout how we treat even our animals that are pets – cats and dogs alike. This film raises greater issues of sentience and the awareness of all beings and their ability to think and feel for themselves, not just people, but animals included.
If people can be reduced to thinking or seeing themselves like animals, then the question naturally that comes to mind is this: are animals then sentient themselves. No, that’s likely not the message of this film; at its core this is a film about humanity toward fellow man, and that is something we should all care about. The conceit may be martial arts, but one senses the director meant more than this and that the conceit is not just some thin premise on which to hang the plot. Yes, the martial arts action is incredible (It’s Jet Li after all) yet still, it is the melancholy that stays. The image of Danny playing with his teddy bear in his cage, reading his alphabet book are images that will stay with most viewers for a long time.