We gave it an A-
Bounding out of the gate like a greyhound, Unleashed needs only its first 30 seconds or so to elevate itself well above the average action potboiler. Bob Hoskins is Bart, a Glasgow gangster with fireballs for eyes, and in the opening moments he snarls ”Get ’em!” at Jet Li’s Danny, his brainwashed strong-arm. According to the hilarious, risky chutzpah of the movie’s bonkers conceit, Danny is a sleeping Doberman. Just take off his dog collar and he leaps into action, here first against a warehouse full of henchmen, tommy-gunning them with his fists, head-butting incoming punches, and tossing furniture across the room with not much more than a shake of his hips. Furiously choreographed by the go-to guy for this sort of thing, Yuen Wo Ping, this lightning-round opening salvo amazes in a way few movie mortal combats manage anymore. And it’s just the first of three or four gangbusters action sequences, all of which are unexpectedly stomach-clenching.
When the collar is on, Danny is just a forlorn little pup staring askance out the backseat window while his master barks at him. (If Li logged any research time hanging out at kennels, it’s paid off. In non-attack mode, he lends the movie true heart.) One day, after a stunning car ambush, Danny roams off Bart’s chain and ends up getting nursed toward normal mental health (he eats ice cream, he obsesses over his long-lost mother, he embraces pacifism) by Morgan Freeman’s blind piano tuner and Kerry Condon’s loopy teen. The goopy awww factor here gets awfully high, especially for a violent martial-arts movie, but the only real problem with these scenes — written by The Professional‘s Luc Besson, who also produced — is that they keep Hoskins off screen for a bit too long. His Bart is the king pit bull of the block, and he tears into the role as if it were a lamb chop. He’s one of the best villains to saunter along since Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast.