This may come as a shock, but I don't attend Jet Li's English-language movies so I can learn more about the human experience. What I want to watch is Li gracefully coaxing blood out of people from places where they didn't previously have holes. What I hope to hear is the revolting yet satisfying crunch of bad-guy bones. Ideally, this should all occur without his feet touching the ground or words coming out of his mouth, and I am rarely let down.
But Li's alternately quiet and kinetic performance in his latest film, Unleashed, serves notice that this fightin' megastar might actually have some acting chops to complement that easy-on-the-eyes magnetism (it also probably helps to be able to hone said chops against titans like Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman). Li won't need to prepare an Oscar acceptance speech anytime soon, but Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat had better watch their backs.
The plot of Unleashed is almost too idiotic to mock. Li plays Danny, a man who has been raised by a gangster (the great Hoskins, in full Cockney bloom) to be an enforcer in his organization. Danny wears a metal collar and is conditioned to beat the stuffing out of various unfortunates (using awesome fight choreography by Yuen Wo Ping) once his master removes the collar. A chance meeting with a blind piano tuner named Sam (Freeman) causes Danny to think there may be more to life than unwavering obedience, and when he gets a chance to escape, he takes it. But then... oh, I'm sure you can figure out the rest.
Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) directs Unleashed from a script by Luc Besson, who hasn't made a movie of his own since 1999's Joan of Arc flick The Messenger. Besson has an odd penchant for the maudlin, and there is an extended, action-free patch in the middle of Unleashed during which old dog Danny learns new tricks with the help of Sam and his sickeningly sweet stepdaughter (Kerry Condon, last seen getting punched in the face by Colin Farrell in InterMission). Besson's next directing project is Arthur and the Minimoys, a film based on a series of children's books that he wrote. Hopefully that will flush the rest of the sap from his system.
When DeNiro and Pacino both turned up in Heat, filmmaker Michael Mann knew that fans would impale his head on a pike at Hollywood and Vine if he didn't allow them a chance to dine on the scenery together. So why would Besson think it's okay to let legendary character actors like Freeman and Hoskins star in the same movie without writing them at least one joint, juicy interlude? Now I wish I hadn't traded my guillotine for that bag of Sour Patch Kids.
It may seem at times like I suffer from an unhealthy enjoyment of on-screen violence, but I do have my limits. For instance, there's a scene in Jang Jun-Hwan's manic Save the Green Planetduring which our hero carefully lubes an electrified metal... um... probe. I couldn't tell you what happened next because I had to leave the room. And that reaction is also a bit of a testament to the filmmaker, in that I wasn't sure just how far he would go.
Our aforementioned hero, Lee Byeong-Gu, is a sad-eyed conspiracy nut who believes aliens from Andromeda are planning to destroy the earth. He's got a simple girlfriend named Sooni and an arsenal of homemade alien-thwarting supplies, and his latest target is the CEO of Yuje Chemicals, Kang Man-Shik, a man who Lee believes to be not of this earth. The plan is to kidnap Kang, torture him into dishing on the alien invasion, and put stop to it.
There are two clichéd cops (jaded vet and eager hotshot) on Lee's tail, and as the story unspools, it becomes clear via quick, grainy flashbacks that Lee may have an ulterior motive for pinching Kang that has nothing to do with outer space.
Planet is a wild ride, kicking off with a thrashy version of "Over the Rainbow" and piling on the silly and the gory for almost two hours. It doesn't always succeed (the ending is a slight letdown), but the resourceful Jang establishes himself as a filmmaker to watch. Here's hoping Hollywood won't ruin him.
Unleashed (R) is playing now at Culver Ridge Cinemas, Cinemark Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12; Save the Green Planet(NR) screens Friday, May 20, at the Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m.