Unleashed (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Cameron Crowe's best movies are about retaining one's
humanity in a soul-destroying environment: big-time sports, big-time
rock 'n roll, high school. Perhaps you wonder what it would be like if
Crowe decided to go one step further, to portray a man trying to
retain his basic humanity in the most abject of conditions, something
even worse than high school - being retained in white slavery by
It would be a lot like Unleashed.
Crowe did not have anything to do with this film, as evidenced by its frequent departures from the logic and natural laws inherent to the universe we live in, but in the unlikely event that he would take on such a theme, he would have to produce a result something like this. Jet Li is the slave, named Danny the Dog, who is kept on a leash like a pit bull, and was raised to turn into a violent fighting machine when his collar is removed. Bob Hoskins is the master, a crime boss who raised his human pit bull from early childhood. The film begins by establishing the routine of the crime syndicate: a visit to someone behind on his payments; a failure to pay; the removal of the collar; mayhem. After the human pit bull has served his purpose, he is thrust back into his tiny cage and thrown scraps as if he were a real dog.
About thirty minutes into the film, a dramatic gangland ambush kills the master and frees the slave. Danny serendipitously ends up in the gentle household of a blind piano tuner and his talented step-daughter, who adopt Danny like a ... well, like a stray puppy. The ensuing section of the film could easily have been directed by Crowe, filled as it is with the simple pleasures of a wild animal learning to be a human through the love of his new family. Of course, Crowe would probably take the scenario off in another direction from there, but this film is at heart an over-the-top action movie, so the plot will require us to accept that the master, once thought dead, is still alive and will come to reclaim his chattel. After all, Mr. Dog is not being played by Matthew Broderick or John Cusack, but by martial arts master Jet Li, so we have to assume that the film will place Danny and us on our leashes and lead us toward some serious ass-kicking action.
Indeed it does. This time around, the master has a new plan to profit from his unbeatable pit bull, not as a mere enforcer for small-time welchers, but as the superstar of an underground fighting circuit consisting of high-stakes tough guy contests which are fought to the death. They are like cockfights, except with human cocks.
Wave good-bye to the Cameron Crowe section of the evening's entertainment, and welcome Luc Besson back in the door.
It goes without saying that Danny the man will not allow Danny the dog to re-emerge, and that the worlds of the two Dannys will have to collide.
You have to be warned that this is a Luc Besson script, and that it therefore takes place outside our plane of existence. When we watch a fairy tale, we accept the fact that wolves and billy goats can talk. Besson scripts require us to accept similar conditions. Or maybe watching a Besson movie is less like hearing a fairy tale and more like playing a board game, in that you have to understand the rules in order to enjoy it. Besson's personal rule book includes the following:
I guess you think that I'm going to dump on this film. I've misled you as usual. I'm only preparing you for the levels of disbelief you will have to suspend, for they are numerous, and many potential viewers will not want to make the commitment to suspend them. If you don't have any trouble with the things I mentioned above, you may get a real kick out of this movie. The tone ranges from the cloying sentimentality of It's a Wonderful Life to the jarring violence of Leon the Professional, and everything about it is over-the-top. Furthermore, the logic of the script is often annoyingly stupid. And yet it all worked for me. I just assumed the problems resulted from the fact that it was a fairy tale, so I accepted the talking wolves, and let the film manipulate me.
A lot of things had to come together to make the film work, and they did. Danny the Dog was an unrealistic role, outside of human experience, but action star Jet Li delivered it as credibly as any man could have, and with a lot of charm. Similarly, it would have been an easy matter for the film to turn the little old blind piano tuner into a figure of bathos, but you don't get that kind of result when you cast Morgan Freeman. You get a regular guy, albeit one more sensible and more compassionate than most. Freeman was perfect, as he usually is. Most of the film's scenes have a tremendously effective green-gray look, as if the film's universe were sunless and permanently clouded by a light green fog, all of which which is appropriate for the story of a man/dog who has rarely seen sunlight. The film also includes some spectacular fight choreography, although the fight scenes last too long and are too artificial and stylized for my personal taste.
Bottom line: it hooked me in and kept me interested. That's what fantasy films are supposed to do. As long as you give it plenty of latitude, it might work for you as well.
The critics in the U.K. absolutely despised this film. By the Guardian's reckoning, the average score was one and a half stars out of four. That was a major exception to the general consensus about Unleashed. All our other measurements show "three stars" or its approximate equivalent, yet the British critics panned it almost to a man.
Well, for one thing, they were quite upset by the fact that there were no Scots in Glasgow. To help you Americans understand this, imagine if a story took place in Mississippi but every single character, even the shopkeepers, either spoke with a heavy New York accent or an Irish brogue. Would that put you off? I think it would, and the equivalent of that happened here for British viewers. The Observer declared it to be "set in a Glasgow curiously bereft of Scotsmen," while the Guardian noted, "Bizarrely, it's supposed to be set in Glasgow - but full of no one but Americans and cockneys."
For another thing, the British critics seem to come from the ranks of the literati, and they despise stupidity. The found Unleashed to be unbearably stupid, mawkishly sentimental, totally implausible, lacking in nuance, and unrepentantly violent.
I don't disagree with their evaluation. I just don't see why they consider those things to be negative.
I'm kidding, but you know what I mean. One need not take pleasure only in the music of the spheres and the brighter angels of our nature. Sometimes I am in the mood for well-constructed, unchallenging, over-the-top, juvenile entertainment. Here it is.
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