After its opening credits, Unleashed gets right down to business. Even if you haven't seen the trailers, the first five minutes of director Louis Leterrier's thriller will have you up to speed: Set in Glasgow, the film stars Jet Li as Danny, a young man raised by the malevolent crime boss Bart (Bob Hoskins) to be a human pit bull. If any of Bart's associates owe him money and refuse to pay, Bart introduces them to Danny, removes the Tiffany dog collar, and the welshers find themselves in a world of hurt.
For the first 20 minutes, Unleashed is trashily entertaining. Li's martial-arts moves are, as usual, beautifully choreographed, and Leterrier appears to be one of the few directors who can actually keep up with his star. Though the movie is over-edited in an MTV-on-uppers kind of way - when he first enters the scene, it requires at least four separate cuts for Bart to walk the span of 10 feet - the beginning of Unleashed is brashly, violently enjoyable, and the character conception of Danny is an intriguing one; as the role requires only a series of snarls and grunts as opposed to actual dialogue, it seems tailor-made for Li's gifts, and Bob Hoskins, chewing the scenery voraciously, is an inspired nemesis.
Everything's going along just fine for the first reel. And then what happens? Morgan Freeman shows up to ruin everything.
This is, of course, a colossal overstatement, as Freeman has earned a level of unassailable coolness that, I would argue, no other American actor currently possesses. But what is he to do with the character of Sam, the blind piano tuner who becomes Danny's mentor and surrogate father figure? Somehow, Sam understands that beneath Danny's barking exterior lies the heart of a frightened child, and after Danny manages to escape his boss's clutches, he quickly finds himself living in Sam's house, learning to eat with a fork, and exchanging cutesy-poo looks with Sam's step-daughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon, about a decade too old for her role).
And during this subplot, which seems to go on forever, all of the movie's action grinds to a halt while Danny learns to appreciate the joys of family and the piano and the decision not to rip the larynx out of the man in front of you.
No performers could get away with these hideously-staged and written "domestic" scenes, and you become thankful that Mr. Freeman is playing his role behind dark glasses, as the decision enables him to avoid outright embarrassment by never having to make eye contact with the others. Unleashed starts out like Enter the Dragon and turns into E.T. What the hell is going on here?
To shift the blame away from Mr. Freeman's character, the whole movie goes mad in record time. Poor Jet Li has been directed to play Danny about 15 different ways; sometimes he's a dog, sometimes a five-year-old, sometimes Rain Man, sometimes Brad Pitt licking peanut butter in Meet Joe Black. The characters in Unleashed never begin to make sense, and when the ass-kicking scenes finally return after a mid-film sitcom hiatus, you're less happy that the movie has reverted to its generic martial-arts origins than you are simply relieved. What was so wrong with Jet Li playing an attack dog in the first place? Isn't that exactly why most of us enjoy him?
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
Once the underwhelming opening-weekend box-office receipts for Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven were revealed, many opined that maybe audiences had finally had their fill of Hollywood's historical "event" pictures; the lackluster Troy and Alexander had eradicated the affection people felt for Braveheart and Gladiator, and, although they're not really part of this genre, we also had all those Lord of the Rings movies on the brain. Surely, this saga involving the Crusades would have seemed more impressive had it not followed so closely on the heels of those works? Perhaps, but then we wouldn't have been able to appreciate Kingdom of Heaven for what it is: The Historical Blockbuster's Greatest Hits Package.
Heroic figure with dead wife who has Nothing Left to Lose? Check. Sage, wizened figures - English character actors, mostly - who spout high-minded blather and intone their lines with maximum portent? Check. Hot vixen with heavy eyeliner whom our hero sleeps with despite the misery he feels over losing his spouse? Check. CGI-enhanced sets everywhere you look? Check. Bastions of armies attacking one another with swords, shields, and - in the genre's newest staple - flaming cannonballs and arrows? Check, check, and check. (Ridley Scott can do this sort of spontaneity-free movie in his sleep, and oftentimes, it appears that he has.) We might have been entertained more if this epic wannabe had an acceptable protagonist, but Orlando Bloom is not that protagonist; he's dear, he's sweet, and he doesn't appear to have a motivated bone in his body.
Yet if you could pinpoint the single most depressing thing about Kingdom of Heaven, it's probably that the movie probably wound up exactly the way Scott and this collaborators envisioned: noble, serious, and devoid of anything the slightest bit novel or imaginative. If you've seen any Oscar-baiting epics since Braveheart - hell, if you've seen Braveheart - Kingdom of Heaven might feel like the longest case of déjà vu you've ever experienced. Hollywood, obviously, still wants audiences to line up for movies like this, but some inspired filmmaker - soon - had better find a different way to tell this story.
HOUSE OF WAX
Just who is the target audience for the House of Wax remake? One would guess teens and twentysomethings looking for a creepy good time at the cineplex, and I'm guessing that's exactly who's going to see it on weekend nights. But I wound up catching the movie on a weekday afternoon, and there were a surprising number of attendees.
Of course, they were mostly middle-aged men.
Who were seeing it alone.
Two of whom left right after Paris Hilton's character got murdered.
The theatre should wrap your admission ticket in a brown paper bag.
If any of you, though, are curious about the film for reasons that don't include the breathtakingly vacuous Miss Hilton, know that House of Wax is generally wretchedly performed and written, and it's half over before the damned thing actually starts moving. Worse still, once our achingly stupid heroes finally do find themselves in peril, there are, at best, maybe two or three good jolts ahead; horror fans are almost sure to get less enjoyment out of the film than the Hilton gawkers will. If, however, you make it all the way to the ending, you'll at least be treated to a rather visually-arresting finale; not to give anything away, but for a few brief minutes at the end of this blandly gruesome scare flick, anyone who's ever longed for a film version of Dali's The Persistence of Memory will be in art-history heaven.