Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Genius unleashed

Mainstream cinema’s continued dive into conceptual nonsense is what allows “Unleashed” to become some sort of postmodern masterpiece. How else to explain the insulting, even derogatory pitch that likely sold the film — “Jet Li is a dog, and when you remove his collar and say ‘Git ’em,’ he becomes a killer” — or, more importantly, how the hell did “Unleashed” end up being (despite its exploitative title) a mature drama?

These questions and more lie within this 100-minute wonder. The film’s transcendent political philosophy begins with the film’s curious production. A French production shot in Glasgow, the film’s central characters are nevertheless all sorts of ethnicities. Jet Li is, of course, Chinese; as “Danny the Dog,” he is at the behest of the cockeyed Bob Hoskins and his incompetent Ritchie-esque cronies. Li meets the blind Sam (Morgan Freeman) at an antique piano shop and, after escaping from Hoskins, lives with Sam and his 18-year-old white daughter Victoria (the Irish Kerry Condon, who doesn’t look a second younger than 26).

No point of racial differences is made among these characters. In a moment of inspired exposition, Victoria (hilariously and inexplicably stuck with braces) hurriedly explains how both her parents died and she came to be Morgan Freeman’s daughter living in England. No characters, not even the villains, say anything about Danny’s Asian heritage. It’s the next logical step from the multi-ethnic utopia of “The Matrix” films, except those films were proud of their futuristic vision. “Unleashed” doesn’t care. It just is.

The director, Louis Leterrier (pun intended, I hope), appears to be the best of Luc Besson’s stable of action directors. The action scenes are clean and unpretentious, as well as particularly brutal — very similar to this year’s “Ong-Bak,” which counted Besson among its European supporters.

The film is distinguished by its unique structure. Soon after Li’s initial ass-kicking, the film goes nearly an hour without a beating. Instead, Li is taken in by Sam and Victoria and becomes acclimated to life outside of being a man-killing dog. This should, by all means, be a flashing red light that “Unleashed” will bog itself down with tired fish-out-of-water domestic drama, but instead it’s compelling.

Part of the film’s power is the suspense it creates in postponing Danny’s inevitable return to form. When he’s recaptured by Hoskins and forced to fight, Danny is a changed man, refusing to kill anyone — only beating them senseless. The overwhelming goodness of Sam and Victoria, surely borne of the film’s exploitative roots, is a believable enough to convert Danny.

The film doesn’t play up the whole human-dog angle as much as it could have, which is interesting, especially in the interactions between Hoskins and his opponents. Were I some British bad guy and a stout, pointy-eared debt collector came to me with a collared killer, I’d freak. That collar, by the way, is an important element of the film — the end credits cite four people as propmen responsible for the intimidating trigger.

Though I defend the film’s racial indifferences, I do have to wonder: When will Asian stars be allowed to outgrow clumsy culture-shock characters? Li proves in “Unleashed” that he’s a talented actor; I found his minimalist dialogue and facial expressions key to pulling me into the film’s ridiculous drama. But the casting of him as a helpless and stupid dog? White filmmakers seem terrified of making mainstream films in which the Asian star doesn’t cower and say cute things in broken English — or maybe white audiences are unable to accept such a film.

Jackie Chan’s endless buddy cop-films cast him as the clumsy, inarticulate martial artist alongside either a wisecracking Chris Rock or a beautiful woman. Somebody made Chow Yun-Fat inferior to Stifler in “Bulletproof Monk.” The relegation of Li to a panting, antsy dog literalizes these unfortunate caricatures. The Asian Invasion is already underway, and it’s awesome — “Kung Fu Hustle” is the best film I’ve seen this year.

Despite these reservations, the message of “Unleashed” is unpretentious and powerful. The film’s music is composed entirely by British duo Massive Attack, whose lush compositions nicely compliment the film’s adrenaline and drama. Music is the key to “Unleashed,” both in Danny’s transformation and the film’s power. Though the playing of Mozart might seem contrary to a Jet Li actioneer, the final scene had a number of people in my screening in tears.

Li is a devout Buddhist, and his influence on “Unleashed” is obvious. He serves as producer and certainly imbued the film with the peaceful tenets of the philosophy — Danny’s conversion to non-violence and the film’s policy of tolerance, even in the face of canine evil, is improbably believable.

Communication junior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Genius unleashed