By Joe Lozito
Dog of War
Luc Besson loves to mix business with pleasure. His business is creating over-the-top action movies with minimal plot; his pleasure is injecting his action heroes with a hint of warmth. When this combination works, as in his 1994 gem "The Professional" or "The Fifth Element", the results can be that rare action movie with memorable characters. When it doesn't work, you end up with trite, cutesy sap. "Unleashed", the latest in a continual series of failed attempts to get martial arts star Jet Li an American audience, doesn't quite achieve the necessary balance to propel it above the din of crunching bones and ultra-violence.
Mr. Besson, who wrote and co-produced this film which is known internationally by the superior title "Danny the Dog", hands over directing reins to Louis Leterrier who brought us the similarly silly "The Transporter". Mr. Leterrier makes only one decision which makes this film stand out from the rest: he actually lets Jet Li do his thing. Too often, Mr Li's American films have been plagued by that MTV-meets-ADD-style editing which is typically used to distract from the use of stuntmen or to disguise the star's lack of skills. Mr. Li never requires this kind of editing. The man is a little ball of power and in "Unleashed" when Mr. Li's Danny - who was raised as a dog for sinister underworld boss Bob Hoskins - is set loose on some baddies, Mr. Leterrier is content to watch him go. So, it turns out, are we.
Unfortunately, the fight scenes (and there are several) are very frontloaded. The would-be "heart" of the film is in Mr. Li's relationship with a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman, showing he can make any role great) and his 19 year-old daughter (an annoying but uninteresting Kerry Condon). But the film grinds to a halt here. Surprisingly, Mr. Li shows more promise as an actor than usual, possibly because his dialogue is kept to a minimum and, of course, because he's on screen with Mr. Freeman, who is obviously having a ball in his role.
The film itself is preposterous, which is typical and fine for a script by Mr. Besson. But in asking us to accept a real relationship after bludgeoning us into submission with violence (the film features one of those movie "underworlds" where fights to the death are staged for ravenous crowds) for half the film, Mr. Besson might be asking too much.