Londonist has always had plenty of time for Luc Besson ever since we first saw Subway back at a time when fluorescent tubes and punky bleach blonde haircuts were all the rage. Since then through films like Nikita, The Big Blue and Leon he's constantly overwhelmed us with a frenetic shooting style, overly romantic doomed heroes and lots of fun over the top violence. Along the way he introduced us to the likes of Natalie Portman, Milla Jovovich and of course Jean Reno so if the wheels started to fall off with The Fifth Element and The Messenger we didn't mind too much. But then he took a step away from directing and concentrated on producing and dusting off older scripts with familiar themes. Sad to say the results haven't been quite as thrilling.
In an attempt to beat the Americans at their own game of making simple minded action flicks he had a hand in throwaway fun like the Taxi movies (horribly remade in turn by rancid Americans) and pushed some cash into less Besson likely movies such as Haute tension (Switchblade Romance/High Tension) and Ong-bak. Along the way he was one of the people responsible for the dire, so bad it's almost fun The Transporter directed by Louis Leterrier and starring the gloriously wooden headed Jason Statham - the third Mitchell brother. He's popped up in everything from the schlock Lock Stock to the damnable Italian Job remake and with a Brazilian Job on the way and something simply called London in the pipeline there's no escape. In fact the Transporter sequel has already got interweb nerds into something of a lather over the so-ridiculous-it's-cool hose fighting scene that's doing the rounds here - if that got your happy on then you'll want to watch the full overblown trailer.
So last night Londonist sat down in Leicester Square to a preview of Unleashed with high hopes after seeing a couple of great looking trailers on the original French website, but wary that this wasn't a full on Besson flick and still very unsure that Leterrier had the directing chops to do Jet Li, Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman any justice. As it turned out there wasn't much to worry about and with a healthy suspension of disbelief and the ability to accept dialogue and setting quirks as enhancements rather than problems, Unleashed is actually a hell of a fun film. A very very silly film to be sure, but if you want a great Friday night out with plenty of throat punching and a great soundtrack then we have no problem recommending Danny the Dog. [more after the jump]
Central of course is Jet Li. Horribly misused in dreck like Lethal Weapon 4
and The Matrix sequels while still proving he's more than just a fighter in movies like Hero it's a shame that Li is still trying to find his niche in western cinema. We've been fans ever since exhausting the Jackie Chan canon and stumbling across the Fong Sai Yuk movies many moons ago. When all the talent from Hong Kong jumped ship for the States following Chan and John Woo, Li should have been a shoo-in for 'next big thing' but then Hollywood is an odd place that almost destroyed Chow Yun Fat's career while making Ashton Kutcher a big shot. The mind boggles.
Away from the big budget car wrecks, Li has made small inroads into the mainstream with flawed actioners like The One (with Mr Statham), Romeo Must Die and Kiss of the Dragon. Li got the story credit on that one while Besson did the script-writing and even though the result lacked any of the finesse of Li's Hong Kong movies it did get the two together and got the ball rolling for what would become Danny the Dog. It's a simple story. Li plays Danny, a boy raised as an attack dog by Bob Hoskin's small time enforcer. When things get messy Danny finds a new home and family with Morgan Freeman's blind pianist who teaches him what it means to be human. Hoskins of course pops back into Danny's life at just the wrong moment and Danny has to fight again while trying to remember his past. It's hokey and a little mawkish, but Li is ideally suited to the role and plays the damaged child spot on despite now being 40+. That he can bash heads is not in dispute, but he's never been given the chance to act much outside of the Once Upon A Time in China franchise - thankfully he's a joy to watch in Unleashed and it's a happy audience that gets to laugh out loud at him coming to terms with ice cream and later applaud when he bites the nipple off an opponent. It's a great date movie.
Hoskins and Freeman are both on autopilot, but who cares? Hoskins is never better than when he's angry and shouting. In this he gets all the best lines, gets to break a few bones himself and somewhere there's a set designer with a pile of photos of Hoskins having it away with large breasted ladies over a desk. Freeman plays the mentor and surrogate father figure who brings music into Danny's life and thankfully has a daughter to handle the rest. That his character is blind seems to be a nod to James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein as he sees the 'real' Danny as opposed to the cut and bleeding monster that Hoskins has created. Kerry Condon as Morgan's daughter is perhaps a little old to be believable as 18, but in this film a large chuck of its charm is the way that it ignores a lot of detail that other films would stress over.
Take the setting. This is Glasgow. Not that you'd know it from the accents. The characters are all from everywhere but Glasgow - New York, China, London etc. And while the streets make a refreshing change for the location shots it doesn't really matter where this is set (and probably matters even less for the French audience this was originally aimed at). The goons when they assemble at the end of the movie look like they've stepped out of one of those post-apocalyptic gang movies form the 80's, set in New York but often filmed in Italy. Whoever had a hand in dressing those extras had a field day in much the same way that they do on zombie movies. We particularly liked the old school skin head bother-boy in Docs and rolled up pipe leg jeans getting just as hospitalised as the old school punk rocker beside him and the madly ill-thought out karate-suited bald bloke who almost gives Danny a run for his money.
The bizarreness just adds to the fun. Not that you've got time to worry about the odd strange detail when Woo-ping Yuen is choreographing the mayhem. As you'd expect from the guy who breathed life into The Matrix, Kill Bill and Kung Fu Hustle it comes fast and furious. There's even a new sport invented - toilet boxing. Put two men in the smallest room and then have them beat the crap out of each other with as many elbows going through the walls as fists. Did we mention the nipple biting?
So go see it. It opens August 19th and along with death matches, throat punching (we do like that) and piano tuning you also get a killer soundtrack by Massive Attack, RZA, and erm... Mozart.