Review for Unleashed
We’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis, inflation is rampant, wages are squeezed, it seems everyone is on strike, the supply chain issues that kicked off with COVID and worsened with the Ukraine war aren’t going away any time soon, and Brexit messed things up for everyone, whether they believe it or not. Basically there’s far less spending money in every pocket right now, and I’m here to tell you that if you want to buy a film or TV show on Blu-ray, buy it now, don’t hesitate.
This lunatic advice is provoked by the fact that we aren’t in the DVD age anymore, where only Limited Editions were truly limited. These days, everything is limited. Unleashed was released on Blu-ray in the UK by Universal in 2012. I got the itch for some Jet Li action and was motivated to double-dip last year, and I wound up getting the German release... second hand. It is that hard to find. By the way, the 2005 Universal UK DVD release of Unleashed is still in stock at Amazon as I write. Basically unless it’s a mainstream catalogue title, a Blu-ray has a shelf life of 3-5 years before it is deleted and vanishes forever. So don’t wait.
Bart is a small time criminal who’s renowned for his strong-arm tactics when it comes to collecting on debts. When his payments are not forthcoming, he unleashes Danny on the faulting debtors, who proceeds to batter all and sundry until they change their ways. Danny has been raised since childhood by Bart to be a brutal killing machine. Uneducated and unworldly, he is literally kept caged like a dog, meek and subservient to Bart, but when his collar is removed, he destroys all that Bart orders him to with an animal viciousness.
Danny has only vague memories of his former life, but it’s his fascination with pianos that cause trouble. When paying a visit to an antiques dealer who owes money, Danny is entranced when a blind man comes in to tune a piano. He’s so distracted that he misses the signal when Bart wants help. The enraged and battered Bart decides to put Danny to better use fighting in underground death-matches, but before he can enact his plan, a chance encounter with a truck sets Danny free.
The wounded Danny ends up on the doorstep of the piano tuner, Sam and his stepdaughter Victoria. The good Samaritans take him in and begin healing his wounds, physical and psychological. Danny gets his first taste of a normal existence, and begins to piece together his shattered past. Now that Bart is dead, Danny can learn what it is to be human. But Bart isn’t dead; he’s out there, looking for his little lost dog.
Unleashed gets a crystal clear 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with the choice of DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English, and DTS 5.1 Surround German, with optional subtitles in both these languages. The disc presents the film with excellent detail, making the most of the stylish colour grade and bone-crunching action, while the audio is immersive and effective.
I am impressed with how the filmmakers have managed to take the bleak look of Glasgow, a look more suited to a Ken Loach film, and made it work within the glossy context of a Hollywood style action movie. Glasgow is still grey and rain sodden, yet it is the sort of grey that actually looks appealing and noirish, giving the story a grimy chic. The action sequences are astounding, with the fights bone crunching and brutal, yet fast moving and visually frenetic too.
I don’t know if it is an urban legend that dogs have a vocabulary of a few dozen words, but this is enacted in Danny’s character when we first meet him. His world is a melange of indecipherable conversations and meaningless words that surround him, and us as the audience. He only really understands a few words, and the clear commands that Bart issues to him. It’s a neat effect that helps build the character.
Massive Attack supplies the music, and the bass thumping beats perfectly suit the fight sequences. There is an odd moment that jarred with me somewhat when Danny and Bart are reunited. It’s a stormy night and lightning flashes illuminate the character faces, at which the music becomes an almost classic horror movie score that wouldn’t seem out of place in a James Whale movie.
You get one disc in a thin BD Amaray style case with a reversible sleeve if you don’t appreciate the German ratings logo. Both that and the UK ratings are printed on the disc label, indicating this is also the disc that was released here in 2012. The disc boots to an animated menu and that’s it.
Keep the DVD if you’re double dipping, as the initial release came with a nice set of extra features which this Blu-ray is sorely lacking. Given the production history of this film, I suspect that the French Blu-ray release might have a bit more in the way of extras, but that’s purely speculation on my part, and I have nothing to back that up.
This is one film that shouldn’t work. A child treated and raised as a dog by a petty gangster to tear his enemies apart. Then as an adult he finds his freedom long enough to regain his humanity, courtesy of a kind mentor figure introducing him to music, which all results in a confrontation with his previous ‘owner’. It all sounds like a tacky premise that gets made into the kind of b-movie that the term ‘straight to video’ was invented for. Yet Unleashed is one of the better films that I have seen, entertaining and exciting without overstaying its welcome.
A fair bit has to do with the script, which at Luc Besson’s hands has the intelligence and wit to make this premise work. A lot has to do with a meaty performance from Bob Hoskins as the utterly reprehensible villain Bart. Fond of dressing in white, and living by his own twisted moral code inspired by the words of his dear mother, every word he utters is a gem. Add to that Morgan Freeman as the piano tuner Sam who takes Danny in and mentors him. Freeman instantly adds gravitas to any film he works in, and the emotional weight he provides teaching the damaged character of Danny makes his growth through the film all the more effective. But central to the film is a stunningly sensitive performance from Jet Li as Danny, making potentially a cartoon character very real and effective.
Danny is basically a child. Brought up as a killing machine by Bart, he has no concept of the outside world beyond obeying his master’s whims. His few fractured memories of his childhood give him an emotional resonance with pianos and music, but other than that he exists to eat and to fight. Jet Li portrays him as a withdrawn, almost autistic character. You can see his desire to please Bart, his hurt feelings when he is chastised, all very much like a dog. When he comes into contact with the outside world and begins to learn from Sam and Victoria, you can see his humanity develop gradually. It’s a measured portrayal that is always believable. You know that eventually Danny will develop enough of a personality to make his own decisions, and the final confrontation with Bart is a foregone conclusion. Yet that confrontation flows naturally from the story and never feels forced.
Then there is the action, of which there is plenty. This isn’t the stylised ballet of most Martial Arts pictures, rather the down and dirty style that you would associate with street fighting. Hits connect with bone shattering intensity and Danny tears into his foes like… well like a rabid dog. It’s visually and aurally brutal and has a freewheeling improvisation to it that makes a change from action scenes that look choreographed to the smallest move.
Unleashed is great fun, a no holds barred action movie that also has a heart. Excellent performances, stunning fight scenes and a story that always entertains make this an underrated gem. Blu-rays are almost always better than the DVD, and in terms of audio visual presentation, Unleashed is no exception. But the lack of extra features compared to the original DVD release is a disappointment, especially in a film that slipped under so many radars, and is really worth re-evaluation now, almost twenty years later.
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