Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We recommend five days of action vehicles, each starring a different member of The Expendables.
Jet Li fans may not find much to love in the Expendables series, unless they happen to share an affinity for the action all-stars who get more screen time than their idol, like Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, or Dolph Lundgren (Li’s attempted murderer in the first film). It’s no surprise that the Chinese actors gets the short shrift (pun only intended if written by Stallone) in that franchise; like a lot of Asian action stars, Li’s most acclaimed work has come from outside of English-language cinema. But Li did show off both his dramatic and physical chops in Unleashed (international title: Danny The Dog), an action movie scripted by Luc Besson in high-concept EuropaCorp mode. Li plays Danny, a human raised as an attack dog by a cruel cockney gangster (Bob Hoskins). Outfitted with a collar, Danny is obedient and docile, kept in a cage and scarfing food from cans. When the collar comes off, as the movie’s dialogue/logline explains, anyone who can’t pay Hoskins gets beaten to death in a flurry of Jet Li punches and Yuen Woo-Ping choreography.
It doesn’t take long for Danny to get separated from his master and make his first steps toward humanity. He encounters a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his sweetly nerdy stepdaughter (Kerry Condon), and much of the movie follows his education in the ways of cooking, music, and vanilla ice cream, among other gentle pleasures. Freeman, Condon, and Li have a warm chemistry that enhances the movie’s formula: With likable characters in harm’s way, the inevitability of Danny’s genre-required return to violence carries real menace along with adrenalized anticipation.
It’s a cheap but effective trick, fusing Li’s martial artistry with Besson’s garishness. Somehow the mixture works: Freeman’s trademark avuncular wisdom doesn’t seem out of place alongside underground cage fights worthy of a deranged video game, and Hoskins gives his entertaining all as the growling, whore-mongering gangster. Director Louis Leterrier, in his element at EuropaCorp before he moved on to a big-budget journeyman career, does especially strong work during an extended action sequence that turns rooftops, hallways, and generic apartments into a deadly playground (and includes one close-quarters fight where the camera jerks and pivots along with the combatants). Whether fighting or learning to love, Li has more to do in Unleashed than in all the Expendables movies put together.
Availability: Unleashed is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.