French director Louis Leterrier is to Luc Besson as Michele Soavi is to Dario Argento: an apprentice to an acclaimed European auteur of genre filmmaking who's never quite risen to the level of his mentor. In Leterrier's case, however, he's come close, assistant-directing 2002's Corey Yuen-helmed The Transporter, featuring Guy Ritchie regular Jason Statham as a no-questions-asked courier of underworld merchandise whose curiosity gets the better of him with impressively explosive results. Argento prot & eacute;g & eacute; Soavi, on the other hand, made his last big splash with 1994's Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man), based on the popular Italian series of Dylan Dog horror comics. It retains a rancid, off-kilter charm that is uniquely its own -- any film that features the corpulent Fran & ccedil;ois Hadji-Lazaro (a Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular) falling ass-over-tombstone in love with the severed head of Fabiana Formica is aces in our book -- but it's hardly what anyone would call a masterwork.
Unleashed (entitled Danny the Dog during its European release) is Leterrier's bid to sever the apron strings that tie him to Besson. Bonne chance, mon ami. As scripted and produced by Besson, Leterrier's debut feature is something of a wild card, a tale of a feral wild child Danny (Jet Li) who has been raised by murderous Scottish mobster Bart (Bob Hoskins) to act as his semi-human enforcer. Danny lives in a cage, his neck encircled by a totemic collar that, when slipped off by big bad Bart, sends him into berserker mode, a whirling, hyper-kinetic dervish of wickedly pinwheeling limbs and merciless, Alsatian-frothing bloodlust. When Bart and his goon squad are removed from the picture by a rival gangster, Danny finds himself freed from captivity. The only problem with this state of affairs is his utter lack of social skills. (Living practically your entire life in a cage will do that.) Out on his own, Danny is taken in by blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon), who recognize the innate decency behind Danny's scarred and savage facade.
From here on out, the film becomes a literal unleashing and re-humanization drama, punctuated by some genuinely affecting moments involving Danny's embrace of music and the stripping away of a lifetime of hyper-violent deconditioning. It's as though A Clockwork Orange's droogy Alex, in lieu of being brain-raped into social norms, were instead re-weaned on ice cream and the loving bond of a decent family. And then, of course, Hoskins' Bart reappears, anxious to get his attack dog back in fighting form. Mayhem ensues.
Though Unleashed comes equipped with a bold if cloying script, courtesy of Besson, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping spares no expense when it comes to utilizing Li's impressive physicality as his weapon of choice. Hoskins, the cockney cad in his Saville Row suits, is something of a clich & eacute; here, but he's been doing this sort of blustery role off and on since The Long Good Friday and he nails it to the wall with gleeful professionalism. Li, too, has come a long way since his Shaw Brothers and Tsui Hark days, although echoes of Once Upon a Time in China's Wong Fei-Hung's iron fists and tender heart inform the character of Danny. Unleashed suffers from a surfeit of sentimentality at times -- blame Besson for that -- but it's Li's first major Western role of any depth and he acquits himself admirably as both mad dog and melancholy master.