What a difference for Jet Li and Luc Besson from their last collaboration.
The boy-raised-by-mobsters tale “Unleashed” is an intriguing little action thriller, worlds above Li and writer-producer Besson’s repugnant bloodfest “Kiss of the Dragon.”
Like “La Femme Nikita” and “The Professional,” the best of Besson’s work, “Unleashed” is a half-and-half tale divided between nonstop sequences of vicious violence and quiet, wryly comic scenes of newfound domesticity.
Co-stars Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins add rich dramatic weight as polar-opposite surrogate fathers competing for the heart, mind and deadly dangerous body of Li, who plays Danny — a human attack dog on a leash.
Life in a cage, eating cold tins of spaghetti with his hands, is the only existence Danny knows. His “uncle” Bart (Hoskins), a heartless loan shark in Glasgow, Scotland, has raised Danny like a pit bull, restraining him with an actual collar whose removal and the words, “Get ’em!” signal that he’s to attack without mercy.
Danny is the ultimate collection agent, ferocious and unstoppable to Bart’s enemies, utterly loyal to Bart himself.
Yet Bart is a pet owner who runs hot and cold, one moment willing to pat Danny’s head and call him a good dog, the next railing and browbeating him like a disobedient mutt.
Circumstance turns Danny into a stray, and he finds shelter with Sam (Freeman), a kindly blind piano tuner, and his spirited teenage stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), a talented pianist.
They introduce Danny to music, a salve to his violently conditioned soul, one tune in particular sparking dreamlike memories of his early roots and how he became Bart’s chattel.
Inevitably, Bart comes looking for his lost pet, setting up a showdown as Danny tries to protect his new family and save himself from his uncle’s thugs.
The violence is ugly, Danny crunching bones, throwing head butts, snapping limbs, all in chillingly workmanlike fashion.
The transitions from bloody fight sequences to Danny’s quiet home life with Sam and Victoria and back again are a bit jarring in their abruptness. But then, no one has ever accused Besson of being overly subtle.
Likewise, “Unleashed” is heavy-handed in drawing two such mirror-image paternal figures as Bart, a mad dog himself, and Sam, who’s nothing short of a saint.
The performers carry the movie through the shortcomings in Besson’s screenplay, though, credibly presenting a basic good-against-evil dynamic that leaves you praying for the safety of Sam and Victoria and hankering for Bart’s head on a platter.
Director Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter”) crafts cleverly choreographed, photographed and edited fight scenes, but he also gets out of the way in the calm moments and lets his actors act.
Expanding on the stoic nobility he gracefully projected in the martial-arts epic “Hero,” the 42-year-old Li continues to show he might still have a career once he’s outlived his action days.
Granted, he’s outclassed by the snarling Hoskins, the soulful Freeman and the warmhearted Condon, but for an English-as-a-second-language performer who has let his fists do the talking for most of his career, Li holds his own among these gifted actors with pathos and sly humor.