All this and it was shot in the post-industrial environs of Glasgow – all rain-lashed factories and dank back allies – not that you’ll hear any Scottish accents.
On that basis alone, Unleashed must have seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Brutal loan shark Bart (Hoskins) keeps Danny (Li) caged and collared, using him as a human attack dog to hurt people who won’t pay up.
In between assignments, we see Danny flicking through a children’s book, his inner life laid out in pictures of the things he lacks: K is for Kiss, L for Love, M for Mother, P for Piano, and so on.
When a mysterious gangster (Michael Jenn) sees Danny in action, he invites Bart to enter him into an underground fight club.
Collar off, Danny kills his opponent with three quick punches to the head and is asked to compete again another day.
As a reward, Bart offers him anything he wants, but he just asks for a piano. “That’s what I love about you, Danny,” says Bart. “One thought at a time.”
During a later job at a furniture warehouse, Danny finds himself in a room full of musical instruments. Here he meets blind piano tuner Sam (Freeman), who treats him kindly.
“Pianos are a lot like people,” Sam purrs. “You pound on a person they get out of tune.”
Later, when Bart is nearly killed by one of his debtors (Vincent Regan), Danny is taken in by Sam and his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), a music student who teaches him to play.
But then, just as the shell-shocked Danny starts opening up and searching for clues about his past, Bart comes looking for him.
Despite the fact that nearly 20 minutes elapse before he speaks a word – and even then it’s just “yes” – Li gives an expressive, appealingly childlike performance.
Freeman and Hoskins are excellent as usual, but they could play these roles in their sleep. Condon, meanwhile, does her best with an American accent (she’s Irish), and is clad, rather creepily, in braces and knee-high socks to make her look younger.
While Leterrier’s direction is efficient – there’s a beautiful match-cut from sand pouring out of a broken punching bag to the pummelling Glasgow rain – the guiding hand is Besson’s.
His films often revolve around near-mute killers looking for some kind of connection, and he has form when it comes to sexualising younger women.
In his thirties, Besson dated the 15-year-old French actor Maïwenn, and his breakthrough hit, 1994’s Léon, featured a 12-year-old girl (Natalie Portman) falling for her middle-aged protector (Jean Reno).
In the years since, he has been accused of much worse, but was cleared of rape charges in June 2023. Still, Bart’s line, “Get ’em young and the possibilities are endless,” resonates for all the wrong reasons.
Although the combat scenes are few and far between, when they come, they show off Yuen’s character-based kinetics.
“In the beginning Danny just fights like an animal,” Li told IGN. So we see him pulling out tufts of hair and smashing heads into the concrete – a long way from the elegant wuxia by which Yuen made his name.
“But when he grows up and when he understands a little bit of life and his character, he gains control of his body and knows he doesn’t want to hurt people.”
If the finished film is more mongrel than purebred, that is only to be expected, but it garnered decent reviews and earned a respectable US$50 million worldwide. While Li was, rightly, praised for his performance, it didn’t bring him much opportunity to diversify into Western cinema.
“The truth is,” he said, “whether the studio is in Asia or America, they are a business, and they look at you [and] they see you already prove you can do action films, and you just do action films and continue, continue.”
In other words, be a good boy, or else.