Danny the Dog (AKA Unleased) Review
A couple of days back I got an email from a regular reader asking if I wanted a review of Danny the Dog from a private preview screening. Uh ... yes? Big thanks to M.J. Blackman for sending in his thoughts on one of my most anticipated films of the year ... it's a great read ...
Before we begin, I’d like to point out that, yes, I am aware that the film has been universally (or at least, to my belief) retitled as Unleashed, and many feel as if this is a superior title; I would like to also point out that they are wrong. Anyone who claims to care about serious action cinema as a means to tell tender, heartfelt and sometimes severely profound dramas on life itself will agree with me. But then some find Bad Boys II a pleasingly moronic, yet effective and (shockingly) highly entertaining paradigm of the stereotypical ‘rip-roaring rollercoaster’ of mainstream entertainment. Myself included (shockingly).
No, the reason Unleashed is a worse title than Danny The Dog, is the simple fact that not only does it sound like a bad Van Damme straight-to-video release, but it also misadvertises the film; well, it would if it had a little bit more heart. You see, Danny The Dog, as a title, hints at a slight fairytale ambiguity – a tenderness that is also, at once, sinister. And this is where I find the film falters. It HAS the tenderness that those who have eagerly awaited the film have prayed for. Indeed, Jet Li proves himself aware of his limitations in English language films, and instead opts to greatly emphasize his surprisingly malleable face; introducing us to emotions I was not aware he was necessarily capable of. Indeed, I don’t recall seeing a Li film, Eastern or Western, in which he portrays confusion, naivety or ineptness so much – Li’s Danny is not always in control. Indeed, he is often out of control, out of his depth and rarely in charge of his situation. The tenderness works. Yet, for me, as a film, I feel they have not quite made it dark enough. It never goes quite all the way out to really highlight the suffering, and the drama, Danny experiences in his life – it’s still a little too… diluted. But then, maybe I’m being greedy.
However, this is not to say it’s a bad film. Indeed, I’d go so far as to rate it four out of five should I be working on a points rating system. Only I’m an academic now. I don’t ‘do’ ratings. No, the film is very, very entertaining, and is also very, very moving in places. Not heavy-handed, not recycled and not, despite its Rain Man-esque potential to veer in that direction, silly. I only feel I have to mention the flaws first – and they are slight – In order to get the bad stuff that I don’t WANT to write out of the way, so I can get to the good stuff. The fights. The look. The music. You see, I had a lot riding on this film in the way of hope – Luc Besson writing and producing. Massive Attack doing the score (and I am a HUGE Massive Attack fan – Five foot six to be precise!). The promising director of the intriguingly frustrating but occasionally oh-so-very slick The Transporter that almost worked. Jet Li. Fights. Brutalism. Drama. Above all, the drama – upon hearing of its premise, I was so fucking sure something had to go wrong – it’s too perfect a concoction. And that’s the final, main problem. This film almost has too much going for it. A premise this strong is bound to fail. Yet it doesn’t – but it also doesn’t quite deliver either. Blame, however, cannot be thrown in anyone’s direction – this is a stellar effort from all involved.
For those who aren't familiar with the plot, Li plays Danny, an orphaned child taken under the wing of a 'loving Uncle', Bart, played with relish by a sorely missed (infinitely welcome upon this return) Bob Hoskins in what can best be described as a bastardized variation on The Long Good Friday’s Harold Shand.
However, Bart's 'loving' is the epitome of tough love - and it's not just reserved for the whores he brings back to his Glasgow hideout. Bart is a small-time criminal, and Danny is his docile ‘muscle’ - until the leash comes off, at which point, under masters orders, he proceeds to beat the long-overdue payment out of Bart's 'clients'. Viciously. Oh so viciously. This brings me to the first point of absolute joy with this picture - this isn't violence necessarily designed to 'wow' or look 'cool,' although it often does wow, and at times does have you air-punching with pleasure at the turning of tables as Danny confronts multiple opponents (especially in an underground Gladiatorial match against a trio of Road Warrior rejects who fight in a manner that can best be described as downright nasty). Indeed, the violence in this film has a context - it is at times reprehensible, tough to watch, cringe inducing and moral. It's not so much about the martial arts, as it is about what it means to hit someone - to cause them pain. Indeed, much of the film itself is about pain. No, the fighting in this picture has a purpose - even if at times the fighting does go on a tad too long. I'm a die-hard fight fan when its fake and when it is done right. As I do enjoy Bad Boys II and the remake of Dawn Of The Dead for what I like to refer to as the macadam factor, these films are justified excuses for violence - violence for enjoyment. Where this film scores highly, is in bringing its plot, and emotional depth, to the forefront to such an extent that you almost want the fighting to be done with quicker so you can get back to the drama and continue caring for Danny and his plight as he struggles to find sense, solace, peace and harmony in a world that has shown him nothing but contempt, cruelty and hatred.
Essentially, and surprisingly, it is the films tenderness that won me over more than the gritty, amazingly choreographed fight scenes that I was initially looking forward to seeing the film for. As Danny finds said solace in the company of blind piano tuner Morgan Freeman (in a role that could have extended to caricature with regards to generosity) and his step-daughter (with whom Danny shares a wonderfully understated, barely-touched upon romance), the violence is quickly overshadowed by that rarity amongst modern martial arts films from Western shores – a plot. As much as I loved the brutality of Kiss of The Dragon (another Li/Besson collaboration) I simply didn’t give a shit. In this I did. As the fights intensify towards the end of the film, you actually root for them to stop, to leave our underdog (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) alone. Yet when the film ends, something is missing – something hasn’t quite satisfied.
With a very final end shot that alludes to the fairy-tale element absent from the majority of the film, Danny The Dog IS a fantastic story – for me, it features all the elements for a successful film; Heart and soul, blood and bones, style and content. It is a story about the larger things in life, as opposed to a story that is fit loosely around some well-choreographed carnage. It’s not about the conflicts, or the revenge, or the fights (impressive as they are). It’s about the larger things in life. Love. Life itself. Living.
Yes, Danny The Dog is a fantastic story. But Unleashed doesn’t satisfy. I want more, and with the film ending on a very final note, an indication that this is a self-contained, non-franchise piece (touch wood), I know that I will have to keep on dreaming of the modern, dark fairy-tale the film could have been if it were thirty minutes longer – if they developed certain plot threads or characters more. We all know Besson’s better than this. He could take things further. This is the man that brought us Leon , THE action film with heart. Essentially, Unleashed is strong, solid, and easily Li’s best entry into his Western repertoire. Without a doubt, it’s the kind of film that many reviewers will be hard-pressed to find flaws within, apart from the fact that - with such a perfect premise, cast, crew, set-design, cinematography and uniqueness – it simply fails to live up to near-perfect expectations. Having said this however, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be sitting in my DVD player for many months when it does come out – even if it’s just for the sheer genius of a fight confined to within a very cramped toilet that features more moves and ingenuity than an hour of post-Matrix wire-work clones. Hell – this film even has a mysterious Kung-Fu master adorned in white flowing robes ala Kitsamura’s Azumi – in Scotland! The stuff of genius! Almost. This sums up the film perfectly for me – close… SO close… but just, simply, not quite there. Besson? Li? Stop teasing now fellas. Unleash the perfection – this film’s more than indicative that you’re capable of such a feat.