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Li finally finds a worthy American showcase

When your resume reads like Jet Li's -- boasting such unforgettable fare as Kiss of the Dragon, Romeo is Bleeding and Cradle 2 the Grave -- there's nowhere to go but up, and so it comes as little surprise that Unleashed, on the strength of a modestly clever script by Luc Besson and an over-the-top performance by Bob Hoskins, is the most sophisticated American film of Li's career. The story is laughable in its absurdity, but it's ambitious and consistently entertaining, not unlike another of Besson's movies, The Fifth Element.

Li plays Danny who has been raised since childhood to act and think like a vicious attack dog. Bart (Hoskins) is his master, a growling Glasgow gangster who uses Danny as his most lethal weapon, a merciless enforcer blessed with lightning speed and steely strength. When he's wearing his collar, Danny is docile, even intimidated by his diminutive owner; when the collar is removed, he is a killing machine -- not because he is sinister or bloodthirsty, but because violence is all he's ever known.

When Danny escapes from his captivity, he encounters Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner with a gentle disposition and sage advice for anyone willing to listen. Danny certainly is -- he's never experienced kindness before, and he must now consider the possibility that his master is, in fact, a monster. But a dog and his owner are not so easily parted, and Bart soon comes looking to reclaim his most prized possession.

Thus, Unleashed establishes the premise for the inevitable confrontation between Danny and Bart, contrasting the hyper-violent criminal underworld in which he's raised to the sweetly innocent world that Sam inhabits. Sam gives Danny piano lessons, and Danny is reminded of his long-forgotten mother, also a pianist. He discovers, for the first time, some sense of happiness and compassion, emotions that have no place in the heart of a true assassin.

The story is pleasantly ridiculous, but Hoskins, as a brutish thug reminiscent of Ben Kingsley's ferocious sociopath in Sexy Beast, lends weight to the proceedings, as does Freeman, who brings instant credibility to his movies, even movies about human attack dogs. Without them, Unleashed could have amounted to so much unintentional comedy, but in their capable hands, it kind of works.

As for Li, he will never be confused with a master thespian, but his roundhouse kicks and bone-breaking chops are brilliantly choreographed, and Unleashed gives him every opportunity to show off his graceful, gravity-defying kung-fu. Even when Li is saddled down in lifeless dreck like Kiss of the Dragon, his movies are sufficient to please martial-arts fans. Here, he's found a story sufficient to please a much broader audience, and it's about time.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars