Although he's played a wide variety of roles in his long and illustrious career, the one type that seems to epitomize Morgan Freeman is the wise, kind and older black man who assists those in need of help of some sort. Whether it's being Clint's right-hand boxing man, leading men into battle in the Civil War, helping Jim Carrey play God or even driving Miss Daisy, Freeman does it better than anyone else.
Thus, some may wonder where he fits in a loose, martial arts adaptation of the old Frankenstein tale. The monster would be out of the question, and the maniacal doctor wouldn't seem to suite him either, which also holds true for the bride or Igor (if you include later sequels and spoofs of the original flick). Ah, but then there's the blind hermit who literally and figuratively soothes the sewn-together beast with his violin and kind ways.
By now, you may be thinking I've seen too many movies this week and have thus slipped a reviewing cog or two, but bear with me. In "Unleashed" -- which sounds downright dreadful on paper but actually turns out to be much better most anyone might have guessed or hoped for -- Jet Li plays a monster of sorts who's been created by a madman not so much interested in generating life, but by snuffing out the same of those who don't pay him their debts.
Li's naive but deadly character then ends up alone in a strange world where the only person who shows him compassion is Freeman's blind piano tuner character who takes him in and teaches him about his new world. And music here literally and figuratively soothes and transforms the savage beast while also rekindling long lost memories of his childhood and a pivotal event that forever shaped his life. Just when things are looking up, the angry mob then comes after the escapee (with guns rather than torches), culminating in a violent finale where the monster confronts his creator.
The Frankenstein motif continues in that the film has been cobbled together out of a bunch of disparate movie parts that really shouldn't have worked together. Beyond the "monster" bits and all of the brutal martial arts action - similar in nature to director Louis Leterrier's first film "The Transporter" along with all of Li's past efforts (such as "Cradle 2 the Grave" and "The One") -- there's a complete reversal of screenwriter Luc Besson's "The Professional." (Here a veteran of being good teaches a killer how not to kill while dealing with the aftermath of his parent's death, rather than a seasoned assassin teaching young Natalie Portman how to be a killer). Then there's the gritty "Snatch" type Scottish locale and characters, as well as the obvious "Starman" meets "Edward Scissorhands" material that involves the feared man-child learning about his scary new world.
Like I said, it sounds awful in written form, and like Frank's crude stitches, there are all sorts of rough seams in the film where those various parts don't always mesh together as well as they should. Yet, the cast and crew manage to turn this into a fairly engaging, sometimes funny and occasionally moving martial arts flick.
The action -- choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping ("Kung Fu Hustle," the "Kill Bill" films) and still containing all sorts of highly stylized visual effects (sudden slow motion, fast shutter speed, etc.) like Li's other films -- comes off as surprisingly fresh if incredibly brutal and bone crunching in its intensity. Some of the fight scenes -- including one in the close quarters of a bathroom stall -- are incredibly well done.
At the same time, however, the more sedate moments -- where the drama kicks in -- actually work quite well. We're certainly not talking award-winning work, but for a martial arts flick, the effort contains a fair amount of substance, intelligence and some decent human and humane depth. And much of that -- shock of all shocks -- actually stems from Li and his winning performance.
Although the limited number of lines of English dialogue certainly don't hurt matters, the martial arts star manages to get us to care about his man-child character, something that hasn't occurred -- at least for yours truly -- in any of his previous films. And while he's just as impressive as usual in the fight sequences, the moments where he plays scared and unsure and then begins to learn about the world are engaging and entertaining.
Having played this sort of role countless times before, Freeman has no problem doing so again here. A few metaphorical lines are a bit too obvious and clunky (such as comparing pounding on a person to pounding on a piano's keys and how neither gets good results), but the veteran actor handles the role with aplomb. Bob Hoskins ("Beyond the Sea," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit") jumps head-first into the scary, if somewhat dimensionally challenged villain character with apparent glee, but Kerry Condon ("Intermission," "Ned Kelly") feels off as Freeman's stepdaughter (at the age of 18) who seems mature at one moment and then like a 12-year-old girl (the braces and rapid-fire, train of thought dialogue don't help matters).
Then again, the overall film is somewhat like her - a bit of a mess, where logic, continuity problems (watch Hoskins' face go from very bloody to clean in a matter of seconds) and somewhat uneven transitions between the martial arts mayhem and dramatic or funny downtime give the film that herky-jerky, Frankenstein feel. You can't help but think that another draft revision, a few more days of shooting or some additional passes through the editing booth might have resulted in a more seamless offering.
Yet, for its myriad of problems -- and decidedly adult content that obviously won't play to all viewers -- the film nevertheless manages to work and pull the viewer into the proceedings. With a decent balance of action and true drama, along with decent performances and some actual smarts behind everything, the picture is something of a thinking person's martial arts flick.
With the maturing of the genre (including a bunch of well-made imports of recent), one can only hope this is a sign of things to come and that the poorly made, hip-hop versions of martial arts films will become something of a distant memory -- monsters of their own sort that we don't want to see again. It's certainly not perfect, but it's exciting, engaging and sometimes moving enough to surpass its Frankenstein-like clumsiness.