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Pet Sounds 

Forget martial arts; I'll gladly give 50 bucks to anyone who can win a stare-down match with Jet Li. Some people piss ice cubes -- this guy stares ice cubes. Or daggers. From silly, throwaway roles like Lethal Weapon 4 to the more domestically (for him) comfortable Hero, this Chinese action hero truly understands the power of the eyes. This must have served him well in films in China, as well as his collaboration with Luc Besson on his 2002 U.S. breakout film, Kiss of the Dragon.

But in Unleashed, The Look is All Wrong. Dulled, really, as Li tries to juggle his acting chops with his karate chops while portraying loan-shark Bob Hoskins' adopted killer pet. The dog symbolism isn't even symbolism. Hoskins' Bart calls Li's Danny a dog, he treats him like a dog, and makes him act like a dog, right down to the metallic collar Danny is forced to wear until it's time to sic 'em, boy! And so Jet Li ratchets down that lovely death stare to a blank stare for much of Unleashed, a puppy with no love, a tin man with no heart. He even shuffles around with his arms limp until he's ready to rumble.

You know what Danny needs? A piano, silly! After all, there's the power of love, and then there's the power of music. But what if the power of music fueled the power of love, which in term fueled the power of non-violence? I love you, man! At least that's what Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano teacher, provides Danny upon their first, very chance encounter. Danny's on the clock, and is not being very obedient while Bart and his thugs are off in another room getting their asses kicked. Why Bart is constantly landing himself in pickles such as these is but one of dozens of improbabilities at play here. So while Bart is licking up a few spoonfuls of his own blood, Danny and his new friend Sam are making a Connection, one that provides a Foreshadowing, for there's something about the piano that stirs something deep inside Danny, and it's not the Alpo he wolfed down for breakfast.

After Bart and his gang are nearly killed off a second time, Danny is free to roam the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, just as stray pooches do right here in New Orleans, and since the Glasgow SPCA is about as well-staffed as ours, he's also free to wander back into the lives of not only Sam but his braces-wearing stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). Victoria is also moved by the power of love and music, and she's an aspiring concert pianist (it runs in the adoptive family). Victoria's also white, which we'll assume makes the interracial sort-of romance that sort-of blossoms between new owner and pet a little more digestible.

And so Danny spends the rest of the film bouncing between old home and new home, learning lessons of life and love only to see them tested by the comfort and security of his old, abusive 'father' and 'home.' Will Danny learn not to attack when the collar comes off? Will Bart find a way to bring him back into the gang before getting whomped yet again by rivals? (Danny may be the dog, but Bart has the proverbial nine lives of a cat.) Not to quibble, but will director Louis Leterrier, working from a script by Li and Besson, ever give us any reason to believe we're actually in Glasgow beyond the ashen cityscapes? I've heard more Scottish accents in yakuza films.

In the film's press notes, Li explains how he'd told Besson he'd wanted to work him again following the success of Kiss of the Dragon, but where violence doesn't have to be the focus of the film. 'He said, 'Like what?' I said, 'I don't know, that's why I'm asking you.' After a few days, he said, 'What about a guy who's like a dog -- treated like one -- but is saved by music?'' That, ladies and gentlemen, is how Hollywood movies are made these days. Sorry for the buzzkill.

All sarcasm aside, Besson and Li deserve credit for trying to go where martial-arts films are always hesitant to go, and that's into sincere human emotions. Oh, sure, they're fine with morality plays, brooding, conflicting allegiances and some forms of romantic love, but Unleashed gamely tries to tap into the soul of a killer who never wanted any of this. Li tries his best to provide a character arc to Danny, and there are times when he really is downright cuddly. But no matter how hard Letterier tries, he's working with atonal material here, and can't have it both ways. And if there had been just a nod toward subtlety, all that sappiness might have been less grating.

Really, the film boils down to a boy who wants his mommy, or at the very least to know what happened to her. He's supposedly been provided the answer by Bart, but it's not good enough in more ways than one. Can he find the answers with Sam and Victoria? Can an old dog learn new tricks? Woof.

click to enlarge Attack dog: Danny (Jet Li) is a very obedient killer when - his master says 'Get 'em!' in Louis Leterrier's   - Unleashed
  • Attack dog: Danny (Jet Li) is a very obedient killer when his master says 'Get 'em!' in Louis Leterrier's Unleashed
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