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Rated 3.04 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Kung Fu Collared
by Frank Wilkins

Bart, a hot-tempered Glasgow mobster, has a lot of debts to collect and a multitude of scores to settle in Unleashed. Being a man of rather diminutive stature, he poses virtually zero threat to those who owe him money. That's why he relies on Danny, his unwitting enforcer on whom he's held a literal chokehold since childhood.

"Uncle" Bart, played by Bob Hoskins, has kept Danny, portrayed by Jet Li, as a prisoner and trained him to attack on command with the passion of a bag full of bobcats. Danny wears a collar that acts almost as an "on off" switch. While wearing the collar, he's as soft and mellow as a Mrs. Beasley doll. But remove the collar and  Danny becomes a twisting, contorting, whirling-dervish, complete with 12-foot high leaps and wall-walks that would put Lionel Richie to shame.

Eventually separated from his master, Danny meets up with Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner who not only teaches him what it's like to be a real human, but also begins to delve into Danny's psyche to examine his bloody, violent past.

Unleashed is really a tale of three separate movies. As an all-out, action-packed, no-holds-barred martial arts flick, it brings the house down with its incredible fight choreography and action sequences. We've mostly seen it all before, but Li and writer/producer Luc Besson, under the direction of Louis Leterrier, do manage to introduce some new and innovative techniques. As an emotional drama, Unleashed falls way short with its contrived sentiment and questionable acting. As for the "action/adventure movie with a brain" that it's striving to be, the filmmakers are never able to successfully meld the two hemispheres together. I kept finding myself wanting it to be one or the other. Rather than periodically peppering the plot with bouts of fists-of-fury, Besson and Leterrier sandwich an overly long and schmaltzy tale about how an abused "dog boy" wishes to be left alone to play his piano, between bookends of breathtaking martial arts action. I could just feel the martial arts purists groaning with impatience during the film's middle section.

Morgan Freeman gives an admirable performance, however nothing more than what we've come to expect from him. His soft-spoken Sam brings his stepdaughter (Kerry Condon) to Glasgow to attend music school. After her schooling is complete, they are to return to New York and offer to take Danny with them. But Uncle Bart has other plans for Danny.

Bob Hoskins steals the show as Bart. His almost over-the-top performance makes us laugh in all the right moments, yet, when he's on the receiving end of a Beijing pummeling, we savor each and every blow. With his British accent and more lives than a cat, he harkens thoughts of "it's only a flesh wound."

I have trouble accepting Jet Li as an actor even though he has more than 30 films to his credit. But here he's not meant to act... he's meant to break bones. His fight sequences are wickedly violent and despite the fact that many of his moves are wire-aided, we never really lose a sense of reality, unless you include the fact that enemies with broken necks, arms and legs continue to fight as if multi-jointed bones aren't a hindrance.

Leterrier's camera work deserves mention here. He has an interesting way of framing shots, and his creative transitions mimic those of David Fincher. His sense of scale is evident, as the inner mechanics of the piano become a playground for the camera lens.

The film's premise is actually quite interesting, and its message -- that violence is not the only answer -- is somewhat unique to a lot of today's martial arts films. But I can't figure out how this story ever made it to the big screen. I'm sure the studio suits had to be forcefully convinced to refrain from demanding wall-to-wall action during the film's runtime. Perhaps those execs should have held their ground, because Unleashed works better as a kung fu flick.

(Released by Rogue Pictures and rated R for strong violent content, language and some sexuality/nudity)

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