Unleashed (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Cameron Crowe's best movies are about retaining one's humanity in a soul-destroying environment: big-time sports, big-time rock 'n roll, high school. Perhaps you wonder what it would be like if Crowe decided to go one step further, to portray a man trying to retain his basic humanity in the most abject of conditions, something even worse than high school - being retained in white slavery by violent criminals.

It would be a lot like Unleashed.

Crowe did not have anything to do with this film, as evidenced by its frequent departures from the logic and natural laws inherent to the universe we live in, but in the unlikely event that he would take on such a theme, he would have to produce a result something like this. Jet Li is the slave, named Danny the Dog, who is kept on a leash like a pit bull, and was raised to turn into a violent fighting machine when his collar is removed. Bob Hoskins is the master, a crime boss who raised his human pit bull from early childhood. The film begins by establishing the routine of the crime syndicate: a visit to someone behind on his payments; a failure to pay; the removal of the collar; mayhem. After the human pit bull has served his purpose, he is thrust back into his tiny cage and thrown scraps as if he were a real dog.

About thirty minutes into the film, a dramatic gangland ambush kills the master and frees the slave. Danny serendipitously ends up in the gentle household of a blind piano tuner and his talented step-daughter, who adopt Danny like a ... well, like a stray puppy. The ensuing section of the film could easily have been directed by Crowe, filled as it is with the simple pleasures of a wild animal learning to be a human through the love of his new family. Of course, Crowe would probably take the scenario off in another direction from there, but this film is at heart an over-the-top action movie, so the plot will require us to accept that the master, once thought dead, is still alive and will come to reclaim his chattel. After all, Mr. Dog is not being played by Matthew Broderick or John Cusack, but by martial arts master Jet Li, so we have to assume that the film will place Danny and us on our leashes and lead us toward some serious ass-kicking action.

Indeed it does. This time around, the master has a new plan to profit from his unbeatable pit bull, not as a mere enforcer for small-time welchers, but as the superstar of an underground fighting circuit consisting of high-stakes tough guy contests which are fought to the death. They are like cockfights, except with human cocks.

Wave good-bye to the Cameron Crowe section of the evening's entertainment, and welcome Luc Besson back in the door.

It goes without saying that Danny the man will not allow Danny the dog to re-emerge, and that the worlds of the two Dannys will have to collide.

You have to be warned that this is a Luc Besson script, and that it therefore takes place outside our plane of existence. When we watch a fairy tale, we accept the fact that wolves and billy goats can talk. Besson scripts require us to accept similar conditions. Or maybe watching a Besson movie is less like hearing a fairy tale and more like playing a board game, in that you have to understand the rules in order to enjoy it. Besson's personal rule book includes the following:

1. The natural laws of the universe do not apply. You must assume that these stories are preceded by "once upon a time" and take place in fairy-tale land. The characters are not bound by the laws of physics, not even the basic laws, like gravity. If a character has to shoot someone hundreds of yards away, he does not have to adjust for gravity or wind velocity. He just aims and fires and hits. If a character falls upon a car from a fourth story window, there is no attempt to determine how much impact such a fall would really make. In the film, it might seem to cause an impact like a fall from one hundred stories, or it might cause no impact at all, depending solely on the whim of the director.

2. When opposing forces square off, they are not affected by innocent bystanders or legal authorities. In Besson's scripts it is common to have long gangland fights or shoot-outs in apartments or even in suburban neighborhoods, but nobody ever calls the police, and no people are ever seen except main characters and those who directly participate in the brouhaha. Gangsters are free to draw guns or automatic weapons and point or fire them at will in public, at any time or place, without fear of any legal consequences.

3. However, the aforementioned gangsters will not draw such guns when to do so would end some hand-to-hand combat.

4. When the bad guy's evil minions are fighting our hero hand-to-hand, they not only eschew guns, but they also refuse to gang up on him. They stand dramatically posed, like the characters on the covers of Marvel comic books, politely waiting their turns to get their asses kicked.

5. Place names are irrelevant. They are just names. Just because the script says that the story takes place in New York or Aix-en-Provence or Glasgow does not mean that the roads taken by the characters in those places will lead to where those roads actually lead. Nor does it mean that the people inhabiting those places will be like the people who actually live there. Besson New Yorkers can take the D train to New Jersey, and Besson Glaswegians need not necessarily be Scots. In the specific case of Unleashed, some American reviewers mistakenly mentioned that the film takes place in London. It's easy to understand how they made that assumption, even though Glasgow is mentioned many times, and the filming actually was done in Glasgow! This Glasgow includes no Scots at all. Nary a one. Everyone in the film speaks one of three ways: (1) proper upper crust English (2) with a Cockney accent (3) with an American accent. In the case of Kerry Condon, she speaks with the worst American accent ever, even worse than Graham Chapman's Yank in the Monty Python skits, and Chapman was just kidding around! It's the American equivalent of Dick van Dyke's famous Cockney turn in Mary Poppins. I have no idea why they didn't hire an American actress, since they hired Morgan Freeman to play her step-father. Kerry's accent not only sounded comically false, but her vowels sounded nothing like the perfectly modulated standard American tones of the man who allegedly raised her!

I guess you think that I'm going to dump on this film. I've misled you as usual. I'm only preparing you for the levels of disbelief you will have to suspend, for they are numerous, and many potential viewers will not want to make the commitment to suspend them. If you don't have any trouble with the things I mentioned above, you may get a real kick out of this movie. The tone ranges from the cloying sentimentality of It's a Wonderful Life to the jarring violence of Leon the Professional, and everything about it is over-the-top. Furthermore, the logic of the script is often annoyingly stupid. And yet it all worked for me. I just assumed the problems resulted from the fact that it was a fairy tale, so I accepted the talking wolves, and let the film manipulate me.

A lot of things had to come together to make the film work, and they did. Danny the Dog was an unrealistic role, outside of human experience, but action star Jet Li delivered it as credibly as any man could have, and with a lot of charm. Similarly, it would have been an easy matter for the film to turn the little old blind piano tuner into a figure of bathos, but you don't get that kind of result when you cast Morgan Freeman. You get a regular guy, albeit one more sensible and more compassionate than most. Freeman was perfect, as he usually is. Most of the film's scenes have a tremendously effective green-gray look, as if the film's universe were sunless and permanently clouded by a light green fog, all of which which is appropriate for the story of a man/dog who has rarely seen sunlight. The film also includes some spectacular fight choreography, although the fight scenes last too long and are too artificial and stylized for my personal taste.

Bottom line: it hooked me in and kept me interested. That's what fantasy films are supposed to do. As long as you give it plenty of latitude, it might work for you as well.


The critics in the U.K. absolutely despised this film. By the Guardian's reckoning, the average score was one and a half stars out of four. That was a major exception to the general consensus about Unleashed. All our other measurements show "three stars" or its approximate equivalent, yet the British critics panned it almost to a man.


Well, for one thing, they were quite upset by the fact that there were no Scots in Glasgow. To help you Americans understand this, imagine if a story took place in Mississippi but every single character, even the shopkeepers, either spoke with a heavy New York accent or an Irish brogue. Would that put you off? I think it would, and the equivalent of that happened here for British viewers. The Observer declared it to be "set in a Glasgow curiously bereft of Scotsmen," while the Guardian noted, "Bizarrely, it's supposed to be set in Glasgow - but full of no one but Americans and cockneys."

For another thing, the British critics seem to come from the ranks of the literati, and they despise stupidity. The found Unleashed to be unbearably stupid, mawkishly sentimental, totally implausible, lacking in nuance, and unrepentantly violent.

I don't disagree with their evaluation. I just don't see why they consider those things to be negative.

I'm kidding, but you know what I mean. One need not take pleasure only in the music of the spheres and the brighter angels of our nature. Sometimes I am in the mood for well-constructed, unchallenging, over-the-top, juvenile entertainment. Here it is.



  • Unrated version of the film
  • There is also supposed to be a "extended" version, but I watched both versions back-to-back (the second one in fast-forward, of course). They seemed identical, and in both cases the closing credits started to run at 95:37
  • Widescreen, 2.35:1 The transfer is anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 screens.
  • Two "behind the scenes" featurettes.
  • An interview with the director.


  • Georgina Chapman shows her breasts in a rough sex scene with Bob Hoskins.
  • Danielle Harley shows her breasts in a rough sex scene with Bob Hoskins. (It's good to be Bob Hoskins)
  • Laurence Taboulet shows her breasts as a woman taking a shower when two martial artists crash her bathroom. It is also possible to see her pubic area under the shower curtain.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: just less than three stars. James Berardinelli 2.5/4, Roger Ebert 3/4.

  • British consensus out of four stars: one and a half stars. Mail 2/10, Telegraph 4/10, Independent 2/10, Guardian 2/10, Times 4/10, Sun 8/10, Express 2/10, Mirror 4/10, FT 4/10, BBC 3/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It was budgeted at $45 million for production. It did ten million on its opening weekend, but petered out, finishing at $24 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C. Original and over-the-top.

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