Recently I had the privilege of seeing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As I stated in my review, it is a Marvel movie to its core. It is also a kung fu film. Whenever I get reacquainted with such pieces of cinema, it typically gets me wanting to see similar ones. Thus, when I returned home from the theater, I looked to a familiar friend: Jet Li. Before he began making American films, he built up an extensive resume appearing in the Hong Kong action films that gave rise to the careers of stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. While we no longer get Bruce Lee films given his untimely demise, and Jackie Chan is getting a little old to be doing some of his trademark moves using everyday items, Jet Li is about the best martial arts actor going. The recent revelation of his condition, having hyperthyroidism, means that we are unlikely to see him engaging in silver screen, hand-to-hand combat any time soon. In the meantime, we have to content ourselves with quality films like Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and Unleashed (2005).
When you read a title like Unleashed, you might believe that it is referring to the main character perhaps letting his full potential be realized. The film kind of gets there, but in an unexpected way, particularly judging by the beginning. Bart (Bob Hoskins), is a mid-level gangster operating in Glasgow, Scotland. He goes about town extorting payment from local businesses in exchange for protection. If they refuse, or fail to pay, then he sicks Danny (Jet Li), also known as “Danny the Dog” so that you truly understand what is meant here, on his victims. Danny had been taken by Bart as a child when his mother (Jaclyn Tze Way) had been murdered by Bart when he was very young. Through brutal treatment and training, including the use of a human-sized dog collar, Bart has turned Danny into a lethal enforcer for the former’s criminal enterprise. So long as the choker stays around Danny’s neck, he is tame as a newborn. Yet, when Bart snaps it off and whispers a command into his ear, Danny becomes a vicious killer that will only cease delivering awful blows until Bart says otherwise. Between jobs, Danny is kept in a cage underneath Bart’s warehouse headquarters where he sits quietly, thumbing through a children’s book about the ABCs. On one of these excursions, a wealthy businessman named Wyeth (Michael Jenn) marvels at Danny’s ability for violence, and proposes that Bart bring his dog to an underground fighting ring Wyeth operates. The notion is that they will make even more money off Danny, and his first fight proves this is a near certain outcome. Unfortunately for Bart, on the way back from the match, his car is run into by a group of thugs representing one of his victims. Danny survives, and believing Bart is dead, makes his way to a nearby antique shop that houses pianos. He goes there for two reasons. First, one of his disjointed memories of his mother is that she was a pianist. Secondly, during an earlier job, he had been told to wait amongst a collection of the grand old instruments. While there, he had interacted with Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind man hired to tune the pianos. Sam had been the first person to show Danny any kindness in many years, and thus his child-like logic told him that he might once again find Sam at this location. Danny turns out to be right, and Sam brings the unconscious Danny back to his apartment. He shares his abode with his adopted daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon), and they are there from the United States so that she can attend a music academy in the city. Danny is, at first, quite shy around them, not knowing how to behave in normal society. Their generosity and warmth are what slowly win him over. Still, they can tell that the scars of his former life run deep, particularly in his insistence to wear the collar. Only after much convincing is he able to let Victoria take it off. Yet, just when he is settling into his new life, Bart’s associates find him. Bart had survived the earlier wreck, and when Danny returns, he attempts once more to get his former dog to fight. Danny is unwilling, and when he finds more pictures of his mother in Bart’s desk that paints a different picture of his mother than the one he had been led to believe, he escapes back to Sam and Victoria. Bart is able to discover the location of their apartment by asking at the local supermarket, and shortly thereafter shows up with a gang of henchmen intent on forcefully retrieving Danny. In the end, Danny is able to defeat them all and become a permanent part of Sam and Victoria’s family. The final scene is Danny and Sam watching Victoria give her piano recital, and she plays a piece they discovered Danny’s mother well knew.
Yes, Unleashed is a martial arts/action film. There is a tendency to write off such movies as being about as deep as a puddle. I would submit to you that there is a little more going on in this one. For starters, Jet Li’s performance is an admirable one. As an American film, albeit one set in Scotland, the language used will, of course, be English. This is not Jet Li’s native tongue, though he appears to have no problems speaking it. In any case, having him play a character like Danny, who more than likely never received an education and only learned rudimentary forms of communication, is a perfect cover for any lingering accent problems. Additionally, Jet Li does a credible job of playing somebody with some developmental issues. At the same time, it speaks to something the Catholic Church teaches, and it relates to the concept “nurture over nature.” God gives all of us one nature, and that is our souls being made for Communion (in every sense of the word) with Him. Whether or not we acknowledge it, our souls yearn for God. And since God is love, the more we acknowledge it the more we can experience it. When Bart gets a hold of Danny at such a young age, Bart is able to suppress any of the goodness for which we would otherwise innately strive. Bart truly does turn Danny into an animal. However, even animals have a God-given, intrinsic goodness in them, but what separates us from them is our ability to express it. As such, nobody is ever really beyond saving. The Bible is replete with stories of redemption, and it is nurture that best brings it out. It is what explains why Danny is not only so eager to leave his former way of life behind, but to thrive. For some, this takes a little bit more coaxing. But that which God gives us all from the moment we are created in the womb is something no one can completely erase, no matter how much we are beaten.
When viewed through this lens, Unleashed is a pretty interesting movie. It does have its action, but there is more going on beyond the punching and kicking. The only lamentable parts are the unnecessary moments of nudity. Honestly, there is no reason for them. Luckily, they are quite brief. Setting them aside, you are left with about the warmest rated R movie you are likely to find.