Screens : A Frankenstein for the kung fu crowd

Jet Li's 'Unleashed' is the compelling, ass-kicking tale of a man bred to be a monster

Jet Li can't help himself: He's been programmed to be an attack dog in Unleashed.

Jet Li has made some real dogs in his pursuit of stardom in the English-speaking world. But the first film in which he actually makes himself a dog is one of the first English-language films worth watching - an action picture with the emotional simplicity of a bedtime story, painted in the grimy colors of the London underworld.

It's a dark film that often gives action the back seat to character development, which may not endear it to every action-movie fan - but Li holds nothing back when the time for fighting does come. Gone are the graceful choreography and elegant poses of his more traditional martial arts epics. Li's character here is an affectless deliveryman of efficient punishment. He puts a man on the ground quickly and stomps his chest like an angry metronome; he speed-walks into a room and delivers identical punches until his victim is definitively smashed.

This is because Li's character Danny has been trained from childhood to do nothing but fight. His guardian - Bob Hoskins, dressed in a white double-breasted suit and oozing conscienceless menace - keeps him collared like a dog, and removes the collar only when it's time to say "Get 'im!" Danny then demolishes any number of opponents and returns obediently to his master.

Things change when Danny finds himself under the care of Morgan Freeman's Sam, a blind piano tuner with a nervously outgoing surrogate daughter named Victoria. Living in their house, Danny begins to speak and show interest in his surroundings. He's like a child, intimidated by but fascinated with things adults take for granted. It's as if the entire tale of Frankenstein had been focused on the Creature's brief encounter with the blind man.

Dir. Louis Leterrier; writ. Luc Besson; feat. Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon (R)
Working from a script by Luc Besson (whose interest in martial arts helped the stunning Ong-Bak get to these shores), director Louis Leterrier approaches the film's action with a crisp, brutal style that suits the protagonist. Fight scenes are rousing whether Li is set against a handful of villains - where he must leap, bounce, and slide to evade their blows - or in a one-on-one match in a tiny toilet stall that rivals the trailer house in Kill Bill as a challengingly claustrophobic arena.

There's nothing deep about the drama, but the cast is uniformly strong in telling the tale. Li's role is the biggest stretch he has made in English to date (admittedly, it's a part tailor-made for an actor more comfortable in another tongue), and earns our sympathy easily between the adrenalized moments. The star's reserved persona may keep him from ever winning an American following as wide as Jackie Chan's, and Unleashed lacks the rap stars and flashy effects that have been used to sell previous Li films. But the same thing that makes Unleashed a marketing challenge, its refusal to be distracted by exploitable but unnecessary elements, is what makes the movie worth watching.

By John DeFore

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