The French writer-director-producer Luc Besson has a way of seeing film conventions through a kind of looking glass and reversing our expectations of the genre. His "La Femme Nikita" had the government take a streetwise hood, put her in a totally controlled little world, and reprogram her mind, turning her into an assassin for the state. Now, in "Unleashed," (called "Danny the Dog" in France), he has Glasgow loan shark Bart (Bob Hoskins) put a literal collar around the neck of Danny (Jet Li), his enforcer. He has raised Danny from childhood and trained him to do this, making use of Danny's martial-arts talents. (Because Jet Li is currently the film world's martial-arts star, the choreography of his fights in "Unleashed" is very powerful.) As soon as Bart takes the collar off, to extract his money from a tardy borrower, Li wreaks havoc on the victim. When he is not needed, Danny lives in a cage under Bart's warehouse floor.
Although Besson only wrote and produced "Unleashed" - the director is Louis Leterrier, who made "The Transporter," also written and produced by Besson - his mark is all over the film. Hoskins is a fascinating and quite scary villain with marvelous lines that he delivers with the kind of relish rarely seen since the great days of Basil Rathbone. He manipulates Danny to kill and maim whoever his target of the moment is. He even enters him in an underworld of fights to the death. But then Danny, who is almost mute, wanders into the apartment of the blind and gentle piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) - and only Morgan Freeman is a good enough actor to carry off this dreadfully clichéd role without causing nausea in the audience - and his lovely teenaged stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). But carry it off he does, underplaying softly, not trying to make an actor's impression on us. He just assumes the role and lets the film get on with its business.
Slowly Sam and Victoria help Danny learn to eat with utensils, speak in sentences, listen to the piano and even play it with Victoria, and finally take his collar off. Will the film turn into a lovely pastoral, in which Danny comes to live happily ever after with Sam and Victoria? Of course not. Bart shows up again, giving Li the chance to show us more of his martial-arts moves in the climactic sequence of the film.
I always wonder how to characterize the quality of a movie I'm reviewing. I don't use stars or other devices to categorize a film, mainly because I think films are more complex than that. What if parts work and others don't? What if a performance is brilliant in an otherwise turgid epic? What if the marvelous script has been butchered by the director? Or vice versa? You see what I mean. So I always have to ask more questions than I'd like to: Is "Unleashed" a good film? Is it trash well done? Is it inventive enough to deserve our serious attention? Well, I believe it's all of those things, which is pretty good, when you think about it.