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Saturday, April 8, 2023

‘Unleashed’ – The Neo-Exploitation of the 2005 Martial Arts Thriller Starring Jet Li

While you probably couldn’t tell from his last couple of movies, French director Luc Besson was once a cinematic force to be reckoned with. I mean, the guy managed to get unusual films off the ground on name recognition alone, even when he wasn’t directing them. One of my personal favorites of his strange little pet projects is the 2005 martial arts thriller Unleashed, a dark and gritty Jet Li vehicle helmed by long-time Besson collaborator, Louis Leterrier.

Having met Besson while working on commercials during the 90s, Leterrier would eventually join the notorious “Besson Stable” of Besson-endorsed filmmakers after impressing the director with his work on The Transporter films. This led to him being hand-picked to helm a unique action project written specifically for the martial artist and international movie star Jet Li.

Originally titled Danny the Dog, the script was inspired by the 1998 Kurt Russel flick Soldier, with Besson wanting to tell a down-to-earth version of the story of a brainwashed killer using his skills to protect a newfound family. As is often the case with studio filmmaking, the script would undergo numerous revisions and even a few reshoots due to shifting cast-members and filming locations, leading to the Glasgow-set version of Unleashed that we know today.

In the finished film, Jet Li plays an orphan who was conditioned from a young age to act as an attack-dog, with his lethal skills benefiting the ruthless loan shark Bart (played to hammy perfection by the late, great Bob Hoskins). After a run-in with a vengeful mob boss seemingly leaves Danny without a master, he’s taken in by a blind piano repairman (Morgan Freeman) and his daughter (Kerry Condon), though it’s only a matter of time before the ghosts of his previous life come back to haunt him.

Unleashed may not have been a box office titan, but it was relatively well-received by critics and audiences, eventually finding success in the home video circuit (which is how I originally saw it). This led to a sizable cult following that still defends the flick as one of Jet Li’s most underrated movies.

So Why Is It Worth Watching?

Mid 2000s cheese isn’t for everyone, as filmmakers were only just starting to update the tropes that had settled into most genre scripts during the 80s and 90s, but for those of you who can stomach a handful of annoying clichés (and some dated color correction) alongside their balls-to-the-wall martial arts action, you can do a lot worse than watching Unleashed.

Featuring some impressive choreography that still holds up today, not to mention a refreshingly grungy aesthetic that you almost never see in modern-day blockbusters, this odd little tribute to brutal Hong Kong action remains unique in its focus on character development and relationships. Sure, the martial arts extravaganza is the real star of the show here, but the film never loses sight of its humanity, allowing the cast to shine even when delivering hammy dialogue and surviving ridiculous situations.

After all, Unleashed boasts titans like Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman at the top of their game, with Leterrier allowing the cast to rework their characters in order to make them feel more believable. Freeman was actually the one who suggested that his character be blind after learning about a piano school for the visually impaired, and there’s no denying the quiet charisma of Jet Li’s socially awkward take on Danny (though I could have done without the budding romance between him and Condon).

And while the avant-garde editing regrettably takes the edge off some of the film’s wild stunts (and often feels like its compensating for missing or unusable footage), Leterrier ’s stylish direction makes this a much more visually striking experience than your average 2000s action movie, elevating Unleashed above many of its millennial peers.

What Makes It Horror Adjacent?

Unleashed Jet Li

Unleashed may not dwell on the horrors endured (or perpetrated) by Danny, but I think it’s pretty clear that Besson and Leterrier were going for a “modern” take on martial-arts-centric exploitation flicks. Sure, the movie is obviously meant to entertain viewers with its impressive brawls and death-defying stunts, but it also makes a point of touching on genuinely dark subject matter like child abuse and psychological re-conditioning in between set-pieces.

The entire premise of the film implies that a business exists where human children can be brainwashed into behaving like Wushu-fighting canines (I mean, Bob Hoskins’ character clearly didn’t train Danny personally or craft his metal collar), and Danny had probably been murdering poor saps since childhood in what amounts to a low-budget version of an MK Ultra conspiracy theory.

The film also features an underground fight club with gimmicky assassins that wouldn’t feel out of place in a slasher flick, complete with memorable melee weapons and impractical outfits. Jet Li’s murderous skills and the film’s music-video-like presentation mean that these ruthless killers are never portrayed as legitimately “scary” opponents, but there’s plenty of entertainment to be found in the flick’s bizarre take on a low-rent Thunderdome.

Again, Unleashed doesn’t exactly dwell on these genre excesses, preferring to ground the story in Danny’s rehabilitation as he learns to live within a functional family unit, but it’s precisely this kind of morbid flair that I believe might appeal to horror hounds. That’s why I’d recommend this one to any fan of hyper-violent exploitation flicks with plenty of heart, though I still wish they had gone with the project’s first and much more appropriate title of Danny the Dog.

There’s no understating the importance of a balanced media diet, and since bloody and disgusting entertainment isn’t exclusive to the horror genre, we’ve come up with Horror Adjacent – a recurring column where we recommend non-horror movies that horror fans might enjoy.

The post ‘Unleashed’ – The Neo-Exploitation of the 2005 Martial Arts Thriller Starring Jet Li appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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