The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, May 16, 2005

Unleashed (2005)

I'd been waiting almost a year to see this, ever since I'd heard of the casting (Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman) and the original title ("Danny the Dog") and the writer/producer (Luc Besson). finally saw this tale of a man (Jet Li) who has been abused (by a snarling Bob Hoskins) into being an attack dog, and his slow climb to humanity at the hands of a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman, in best Spiritual Guide mode) and his daughter. One critic suggested that it is as if someone built an entire film around the Frankenstein monster's encounter with the blind man...and that's a pretty good comment. I'll say this: the movie is good enough that I wish it was better. It is certainly and by far Jet Li's best English-language film, so good that I can easily see how it could have been a classic, given certain changes. But also, it was probably about as good as it was ever going to be.
for those of you sick of my rantings about certain sociobiological problems manefesting in the rigid roles of non-whites in film, I'd suggest you stop reading now. Rant time is about to begin. ##
Basic premise: that non-white males are not allowed to have sex in movies. That this is due to audience distaste, not "Hollywood" squeamishness, and that the fact of this can be determined simply by looking at box-office receipts over the entire history of film.
How could "Unleashed" have been better? Well, let's start with the obvious fact that if this had been a film starring, say, Jean-Claude Van Damme (back when he was a star of consequence), it would have included his sexual awakening. In fact, there is clearly a moment in the film where he is supposed to get his first kiss. He states that it is "wet...and nice." Much like the comment made by Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman." Of course, in that film, Hoffman is kissed on the lips, and in "Unleashed" he is kissed on the cheek. The lack of this core reality, that human beings are sexual, creates an uncomfortable unreality about films like this, where the directors and writers strain to portray humanity without allowing the characters to do what they would naturally do. Morgan Freeman is a beautiful example of this. This great actor has had...wait for it...exactly ONE screen kiss in his entire career. Please stop and think about how incredibly artificial that makes many of his movies, including the two suspense films "Along Came a Spider" and "Kiss The Girls", both made from novels in which the lead character was quite sexual. Both converted, on screen, into the kind neutered male image white America seems most comfortable with. (Remember, people, that my premise is that if the conditions were reversed, black males would be just as aversive to allowing whites to drop trou onscreen. In no way am I suggesting that whites are special in this, or any other regard.) What is a "Spiritual Guide"? An image of a white or black person, usually male, who exists only to help a white person succeed, or learn a life lesson. Spiritual guides have no outside interests or relationships or on-screen human connections. "Bagger Vance," "The Karate Kid," "Crossroads", "Bruce Almighty", "Driving Miss Daisy" and countless other films contain this beloved, acceptable, non-threatening image. In all fairness, Morgan Freeman's role in "Unleashed" isn't quite a spiritual guide by this definition. He has another human connection--a daughter. And, of course, Jet Li isn't white. But it is interesting that his daughter is white--a step-daughter. Sociobiologically, he is a genetic dead-end investing in another man's progeny. But even I can admit that is a bit mean-spirited of me...
The fact that the film-makers would not allow Jet Li to be a fully fleshed male (even a dog has the instinct to rut), and that they are flirting with the image of the sexless Spiritual guide in the same film where the white character, Bob Hoskins, is presented as a fully-sexed hyper-male banging white and Asian women, borders on the offensive, and suggests that they were at a bit of a remove from the very questions of humanity that might have led them to balance the story a bit. You'll rarely hear this from me, but...they could have used a bit less violence. It didn't need to be so cartoony if you allow the characters to be more than two-dimensional. And this story of a fragile, wounded family in a hostile world could have used more threat at the end, with a not-so-invulnerable Jet Li, suddenly aware that he is flesh and blood, struggling to keep the only people he has ever loved, and have ever loved him, safe from harm. This was, potentially, a martial arts masterpiece. Hell, forget that--it was potentially an action-film masterpiece, a suspense masterpiece. Well, that might be a LITTLE bit much, because although Li did the best acting of his English-language career, he is still only adequate in that regard. His real acting is his incredibly kinetic body, which can do things far beyond the norm, and, surrounded by the right cast, and the right script, and the right people, might have created a breakthrough blockbuster. But on the other hand, it is entirely possible that that film still would have been rejected by the audience, for reasons we have addressed.
What do I think? I think that the audience is ready. That the right film, made with courage and vision, could break through and even become a social event, making money hand over fist. But someone would have to have taken a risk. And no one wanted to. So instead of a classic, it's just the best film Jet Li has done outside of Asia. No small thing, but it could have been so much more. I'll give it a "B+", and pray for better days to come.