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Unleashed (2005): ***½

Directed by Louis Leterrier

Being that this is a movie starring Jet Li and directed by one of Luc Besson's students (and written by Besson himself), you would expect it to be chock full of rousing action but rather lacking in plot and characterization. But you'd be wrong.

Unleashed really isn't an action movie. There are only really three action scenes in the whole thing, unless you count the opening one, which is very short (purposefully so). The action is very good, and Jet Li for the most part abandons fancy technique and adopts an all-out aggressive style that is very different from his usual on-screen style.

But the two action scenes at the beginning and the two at the end really only bookend the real movie: Danny's (Jet Li) transformation from a dog-like child/man under the cruel domination of "Uncle" Bart (Bob Hoskins) into an actual human being under the careful and gentle guidance of blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his daughter-in-law Victoria (Kerry Condon), who develops a crush on Danny the moment she meets him.

The scenes with Danny and Sam (and Victoria) play out beautifully. It is as if you're watching an animal handler attempting to domesticate a wild dog. At first Danny is all nerves and is terrified out of his mind. He hides under the bed. But Sam's careful kindness, and Victoria's extremely sloppy kindness, little by little put him at ease until he finds that he does not need to fear these people. And as they show him a world without the need for violence, he comes to feel at home there.

Jet Li's performance as Danny throughout this film is absolutely phenomenal. He's basically retarded, though not through genetics. Uncle Bart stunted his mental and emotional growth so that he's basically like a five-year-old kid. After Victoria first meets Danny, Sam asks for her reaction.

"He's cute," she says. "I like his haircut. It reminds me of when I was six and you let me cut my own hair."

"He's not six years old," says Sam.

"I bet he is more than not," Victoria replies.

And that is the ture key to the Danny character. Jet Li completely embodies this role. When the collar is off and he's fighting, he is pure concentrated rage, fierce, blind, and unyielding. But when the collar is on he hunches his shoulders and looks down and shuffles about like a little kid in a world of grownups he has no chance or even desire to understand. Jet Li's facial expressions, body language, and especially reaction shots even subtly change over the course of the film. He stops moving like an idiot child and starts moving like a happy child.

Morgan Freeman is, as always, reliable and steady. In another actor's hands the character of Sam, the wise, blind, black man, could have easily been a cliche. But Morgan Freeman manages to find good individual characteristics for Sam, making his choice (of taking an injured stranger under his roof when he has a teenage daughter in the house) seem believable. There is a great scene with Victoria where (after she and Danny return late from school) he chides her for being reckless, and you can feel that this is a man who has lost almost everything in his life—his best friend, his wife, his sight. All he has left is his daughter, and under his soothing exterior he is absolutely terrified that he might lose her too. And Danny comes to represent to Sam a recreation of the family that was earlier lost when Victoria's mother died.

That the ensuing violence is so brutal and ugly only serves to underscore the differences between the world of Uncle Bart and the world of Sam, and makes the tenderness of Sam's world seem all the more precious—and all the more worth fighting to protect.

This movie really surprised me. I was expecting some kickass action fun. I wasn't expected to be moved nearly to tears by the emotional growth of the characters.

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