Friday, March 1, 2024

Why Jet Li’s Danny the dog role in Unleashed didn’t help him crack Hollywood

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Behind the scenes, Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-ping ( The Matrix) choreographed the fights, and the British trip-hop collective Massive Attack provided the sombre score.

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.

Li had been trying to crack Hollywood since 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4 and had already appeared in 2001’s Besson-produced Kiss of the Dragon. But by the mid-noughties, the action genre was moving away from 1980s-style blockbusters into grittier territory, and he was looking to show he could act as well as kick a**.

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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.

Li (right) in a still from Unleashed. Photo: Universal Pictures

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.”

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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.

Morgan Freeman and Jet Li in a still from Unleashed.

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.

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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).

Li and Hoskins in a still from Unleashed. Photo: Universal Pictures

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.

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“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.”

Danny’s final fight club appearance sees him athletically avoiding four adversaries (including future action star Scott Adkins).
The climactic battle makes great use of an entire Glasgow tenement, with our hero escaping through the ceiling into the flat above, a nifty move replicated in Gareth Evans’ 2011 hit The Raid.
Li received praise for his role in Unleashed, in which he acted opposite heavyweights including Morgan Freeman, and one of his action sequences was replicated in Gareth Evans’ film The Raid. Photo: Universal Pictures

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.

Since 2005, except for a glorified cameo in The Expendables series and a key role in 2020’s live-action Mulan, he has mainly worked in China.

“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.

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