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Bad Puppy 

A review of Unleashed (R)

click to enlarge Action masters Jet Li and Co. produced a real dog of a - flick.
  • Action masters Jet Li and Co. produced a real dog of a flick.

Unleashed (R)

Kimball's Twin Peak
Even the best cinematic elements sometimes combine to make trash, and that's the case with Unleashed, a film that should be great: a script by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Professional), a lead role by action star Jet Li (Hero), set in Glasgow with a score by trip-hoppers Massive Attack.

Unfortunately, the only reason to watch this lousy movie is the fantastic martial arts, sequenced by Yuen Wo Ping (Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The rest of the film fails spectacularly.

Li is cast as a Danny, a slave to a gang of Scottish gangsters. Bart, the dapper, cockney kingpin (a well-cast Bob Hoskins), has trained Danny as an attack dog who explodes violently if his leash is removed.

Bart's job is to collect cash from shady business dealings, prowling Glasgow's underground with Danny, who wears a metallic collar that functions as a leash.

A nasty piece of work, Bart steps to his debtors before unleashing the attack human. Danny, who is simpering and submissive when his collar is on, proceeds to pound the stuffing out of his victims in jaw-dropping stop-slow-real-time action sequences.

Although the opening scenes indicate a potential genre classic, Unleashed quickly descends into cutesy nonsense.

While Bart's back is turned, Danny encounters Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner, while on an attack mission to a pawnshop. Sam can't see Danny and kindly asks the metal-collared warrior to help him tune a piano. Danny is mesmerized by the sound of the piano and begins to feel the stirrings of humanity.

A few scenes later, Bart and the gang are seemingly wiped out in a car accident, and Danny escapes. Predictably, Sam decides to take the stray Danny home, where he lives with his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon).

The movie then veers psychotically between cuteness -- with Li as the puppy -- and full-on kung fu terror. Li bounces between his new life with Sam and Victoria and the reappeared (though injured) Bart's clutches.

Victoria, a braces-wearing American on a piano scholarship in Glasgow, gives Danny Casio synthesizers to toy with. They go for boat rides in the park (where Danny recoils from the water as a scared dog might) and eat ice cream (Danny laps it up like a dog). Sam even teaches Danny how to buy melons at the supermarket.

Not only is this overly precious (at times like an ABC After-School Special) material, it's also insulting for an actor of Li's stature to pretend he's a dog throughout an entire feature.

When Bart recaptures Danny, the gangsters put him to work as a pit fighter in illegal underground death matches. Although the martial arts are stunning, the incongruity with the previous love scenes is jarring. Besson should be thrashed for writing this schizophrenic garbage, which only becomes worse as the film lumbers toward its conclusion.

The viewer learns more about Danny's origins and why he became Bart's dog, but any dramatic effect is ruined by the ridiculousness of a 20-minute gun battle in downtown Glasgow, free of police interruption.

Even the score, crafted by the formerly cutting edge music group Massive Attack, is a dud. The sleek, steely beated music isn't bad, but the group was previously known for making more than just car-commercial electronica.

Perhaps high hopes aren't appropriate for action films. But with so many masters involved, this flawed film cannot receive a pass.

-- Dan Wilcock

  • A review of Unleashed (R)

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