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For about 25 minutes, it looks like the heartwarming kung-fu bloodbath Unleashed is actually going to pull off its ridiculously high concept. A Glasgow gangster named Uncle Bart (Bob Hoskins) has raised a young man named Danny (Jet Li) to be his "attack dog," complete with collar and unthinking devotion. "Get 'em while they're young and the possibilities are endless," Bart likes to say, and when he takes off that collar, Danny — who lives in a cage and seems capable of no more than "one thought at a time" — can unload brutal martial arts on anyone who owes Bart money. The first time we see Danny "unleashed," it's nasty-cool: Matrix choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping has devised a semi-primitive fighting style for Li (as primitive as wire-fu gets, anyway) where Danny repeats each brutish punch three or four times in a row; it's painful-looking and sort of unique. And when Bart enters Danny into a series of underground fights to the death straight out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, you think Unleashed might end up being stupid fun — along the lines of director Louis Leterrier's previous effort, The Transporter. No such luck. After Bart is ambushed by rivals, Danny hides out with a truism-spouting, piano-tuning blind man (Morgan Freeman) and his music-student stepdaughter (Kerry Condon). And suddenly, Unleashed slows to a very long, very goopy crawl as Danny becomes a sort of lethal Rain Man — learning the joys of cooking, music, and kissing, and slowly gaining the self-awareness to realize that maybe killing people isn't such a great idea after all. Hoskins (who actually finds intelligent ways to deliver lines like, "You're my dog!") finally comes blundering back into the picture, bringing with him an army of goons and a pajama-clad bald henchman who looks like Shaolin Moby. But it's too late. Despite the over-the-top battles that follow, the movie never recovers from its cheesy center. Even tender work by Li and Freeman can't overcome scenes in the Luc Besson script where Freeman is spouting homespun idiocy like "Food talks!" and "Families stick together! This is what families do!" In the movie's final image, the camera zooms in to a piano and, in a truly bizarre POV shot, the lens (and thus the audience) is hit square in the face by a piano-key hammer. It's a silly image of weird, velvety abuse — and it sort of sums up Unleashed perfectly. Universal/Rogue Pictures's DVD release offers a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Featurettes include "Director Louis Leterrier: Unleashed" (5 min.), "Serve No Master" (10 min.), and "The Collar Comes Off: Behind the Scenes of Unleashed" (12 min.) Also on board are two music videos by Massive Attack and The RZA. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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