Jet Li's latest bone-crushing adventure has him enslaved to a Glasgow mobster, and laying waste combatants at a local fight club.
Danny knows only one life; he’s the enslaved muscle behind a Glasgow mobster’s arm-twisting goon-in-chief, Bart. Dog collar on and Danny’s as docile as newborn puppy. Collar off and he becomes a rottweiler on steroids, crushing and mangling anyone Bart tells him to. After one bone-crushing encounter, a mysterious man who witnessed the mayhem approaches Bart with a proposal—entering Danny in an underground fight club where only one contender leaves the arena alive. Bart is not the type to turn down the potentially big money involved.
When not out causing generalized havoc, Danny is kept in a cage, where he looks at a children’s alphabet book. He’s drawn to the letters K (for kiss), L (for love) and P (for piano). So wouldn’t you know it, he winds up in a warehouse full of old pianos, where a kindly, blind, piano tuner named Sam comes to work. Through an improbable series of events, Danny is able to break free from Bart, and Sam brings the badly injured Danny back to his apartment.
The milk of human kindness, which includes sisterly kisses from Sam’s adopted daughter, Victoria, and, yes, a well-tuned piano slowly turn Danny from a killing machine into the picture of meekness. Unraveling the mystery of his origins, Danny learns that his attraction to pianos and beautiful music comes from the mother he barely knew.
Sound too good to be true? It is. Everything blows up again when Danny accidentally runs into one of Bart’s goons. That’s when the real battle for Danny’s soul begins.
Sam and Victoria offer unconditional love to the strange man they’ve brought home. And their inclusion of him is permanent. Sam says, “That’s what families do; they stick together.” In turn, Danny sacrifices his own well-being to direct evil attentions away from Sam and Victoria, and eventually uses his impressive fighting skills in a life-or-death struggle to protect them. Once stimulated by love and affection, Danny refuses to kill for sport anymore.
In a large sense—and putting words in the filmmakers' mouths—the entire story can be seen as a metaphor for the power of selfless love to overcome the dark grip of sin and oppression. Bart’s enslavement of Danny and his mocking of Danny’s attempts to better himself ("You'll never be anything but a dog; you'll never escape what I made you") mirror what Satan says to us—that we’re hopeless sinners who will never benefit from the grace God offers us.
Bart’s motto for training his fighters, gotten from his mom, is “Get a man young enough and the possibilities are endless.” When informed that this is, roughly, the motto of the Jesuits, he says they probably stole it from his mom. (For the record, the Jesuits say, “Show me the child and I’ll give you the man.”) Sam and Victoria hold hands and say grace over a meal, and Sam’s final prayer request is, “Please make sure Victoria kicks butt in her upcoming piano recital.” Victoria promptly chides him, reminding him that he always taught her not to bother God with wants.
Bart starts to have very rough sex with a hooker in a parking garage. We see her bare breasts, and the camera lingers as he pulls down her panties from beneath her dress. (When she sees Danny in his cage below, she flees.) A later encounter between Bart and another prostitute is again interrupted when the woman sees Danny, and again her breasts get screen time.
A brawl between Danny and Bart’s henchmen spills into a bathroom where a woman is showering (breast nudity, side nudity, then full frontal nudity barely disguised by her translucent shower curtain).
Bart tells Danny that his mother was a whore, then crudely describes the sexual things he did to her. Two men joke about having erections. Bart recounts a sexualized dream. As a reward, Bart offers to get Danny a woman, smirking, “You’ve never had a woman, have you?” A fight takes place in an art studio, with some nude female sculptures in view.
In two excruciating flashbacks, Danny sees his mother shot in the head. In one blood and gore sprays in slow motion as the bullets finds its mark, and in the other we see blood splatter across a wall.
The martial-arts violence is intense and bloody. Danny emerges from quite a few fights bloodied. On one occasion he collapses in a pool of blood. Weaponry used for lethal purposes includes guns, clubs, knives, spears and axes. Danny is not content to just hit, chop, stomp or kick once—we see multiple blows to heads, multiple head-butts to faces, multiple knees to guts, multiple elbows to faces. He pulls out a man’s hair and pounds a man’s face into the floor until he’s unconscious. There are repeated scenes of victims (Danny's and others') being stomped on and kicked. When Danny refuses to finish off an opponent, Bart kills the fighter with multiple gunshots.
Danny strangles a man with his own tie. When he bites a man's chest, we see blood spreading on his white shirt. In a fight to the death—at which a bloodthirsty crowd cheers at the carnage and boos when there's not enough "action"—a combatant's neck is snapped. Danny rams a spike through a man’s foot and smashes another’s head with a sledgehammer. Elsewhere, backs are broken, legs shattered and hands mangled.
A car is pulverized by a huge truck; gangsters then machinegun the survivors. Another wreck shows a car flipping through the air, and we see the battered bodies in the wreckage. Several scenes show men thrown through windows, and in one he falls several stories before crash landing on a car below.
Crude or Profane Language
Thirty uses of the f-word and about 10 uses of the s-word. British crudities include “bloody” and “w-nker.” “A--,“ “h---“ and “b--ch” are used several times each, as is crude slang for women’s breasts and male erections. Jesus' and God’s names get abused about five times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several characters smoke cigarettes. In one scene the image goes into slo-mo as the camera studies the rising smoke. Bart swigs wine and later says he wants to stop by a pub “and have a pint.” Bart is offered a glass of champagne.
Other Negative Elements
Bart repeatedly refers to Danny as his dog or a "retard." And it's not just talk. Bart and his goons treat Danny like an animal.
The poet William Congreve noted, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.” And the French composer Hector Berlioz asked, “Which of these two powers, love or music, can elevate man to the sublimest heights? Why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul.”
If Unleashed’s director, Louis Leterrier, had concentrated on such lofty thoughts and skipped the over-the-top violence and crude sexual imagery, this might have been a poignant story, since both poet and composer are proved right by film's end. But then, Leterrier would have needed a better screenwriter, too. Writer Luc Besson has loaded this story with improbabilities (Danny just happens to wind up in a warehouse full of pianos where he's left unguarded) and absurdities (blind Sam can hear the almost imperceptible clicking of Danny’s signal light but can’t hear the slaughter and mayhem happening one floor below).
Besson has also made his characters utterly stupid when it’s convenient for the story. For example, Sam says, “Sometimes I worry about that boy. It’s as if someone or something has caused him to shut down.” You think!? Danny only came to you wearing a dog collar, blood pouring from his wounds, and he hides under his bed like a scared puppy anytime a stranger enters the room. And all Sam can say is, hmmm, I think there’s something wrong with the boy!
Unleashed can be easily summarized thus: Human kindness good. Hatred and violence bad. File under “Duh!” and save yourself two hours of hokey storytelling and senseless mayhem.