May 11, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
103 minutes
Wide Release Date
Jet Li, Kerry Condon, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins
Louis Leterrier
Rogue Pictures
Luc Besson
Action Adventure, Mystery and Thriller, Drama
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.

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