Caught Unleashed this weekend.
Through the early 90’s Jet Li made a spate of kung fu films (the best of which include Once Upon a Time in China II, Fong Sai Yuk, Tai Chi Master & Fist of Legend) that made him a Legend in Asia (and the world: the young NYC art crowd worshipped his film back then, at festivals and in Chinatown).
Sad to say, Li’s post-HK films have been pretty bad (See parody at http://lovehkfilm.com/features/fake_page_2.htm ).The one half-way good film was Kiss of the Dragon a film produced and most likely written by Luc Besson, the writer-director of the influential and celebrated French action films Leon: the Professional and La Femme Nikita.
Now, Besson and Li teamed up again for Unleashed (orig. title, Danny the Dog). It isn’t without flaws, but I can say, with a sigh of relief, it’s the best Jet Li action film since his halcyon Hong Kong days. The script is a throwback to Besson’s best work, Leon and Nikita, in that it’s about almost irredeemable killers, who get the chance to regain some degree of their humanity redeemed by love, represented here by Morgan Freeman’s benevolent blind piano teacher and his stepdaughter pianist. The only big difference is in the ending. Usually Besson’s anti-heroes have to sacrifice something, their loves or lives, to protect those that finally made their lives worth living again. Li’s character isn’t call upon to make that kind of sacrifice here: which leads me to believe the script was changed, or a non-tragic ending was shot to appease American distributers, most of whom run from tragedy as though it were the plague. (The same logic, I’m sure, is the reason the filmmakers of Spiderman substituted Mary Jane for Gwen in their adaptation of the climax of the early Green Goblin stories.) So in this sense, the film wasn’t as dramatic or as satisfying as it could be, but I was willing to let it, as well as the sudden appearance of “the bad ass in white”, slide.
One virtue of the film is, that for the first time in his post-HK ouvre, Jet Li gets to show he can act, after a fashion. Li proved in his HK work that he has a gift for silly comedy: and Besson’s story allows him to goof around in the sequences where, like Leon or Nikita before him, Danny the Dog is reintroduced to humanity. The audience loved these sequences. I might have too, if my potential pleasure wasn’t mitigated by the fact that, in order for an Asian movie star to actually get to act in an American or European financed film, they would have to spend the first half the film acting, literally, like a trained attack dog.
That’s just a personal pet peeve. I can still recommend the film, if nothing else, because it’s been too damn long since Besson penned and produced (Lord, I wish he would start directing again) one of his signature, character-driven action movies. Few people (since Peckinpah acolyte, Walter Hill stopped directing and became a producer, and John Woo lost the control he had over story when he came to the US) do it as well. Besides, we do get to see Li do horrible brutal things to bad people (Yay!) like Bob Hoskins monster-ous round British gangster, and an army of thugs, and “to-the-death” Ultimate Challenge type fighters. So on the whole, it’s still worth seeing.