If you come into Unleashed expecting a standard affair of martial arts sequences and a throwaway story, you'd only be half right. In this film, you will find Jet Li's finest display of English-language acting, his emotionally unstable character fully embraced by Li and very well complemented by a brilliant supporting cast composed of Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman, and Kerry Condon. The end result is a movie that tells a surprisingly human story while satisfying all your martial arts desires.
The concept is simple enough: a man trained to be a killing machine and nothing more chances upon another, more peaceful lifestyle, causing him to question everything he's thought to be true. Jet Li plays Danny, a man trapped in a life of violence and used as a weapon by his "uncle" Bart, played by Bob Hoskins. The relationship between Danny and Bart forms the crux of what turns out to be a very emotionally impactful story, with Bart's aggressive and brutal control over Danny causing the latter to become emotionally unstable and socially awkward.
Offsetting Bart's loveless demeanor towards Danny's humanity is Sam, played by Morgan Freeman. While it is not Freeman's most impressive role to date, the character's attitude is established well enough to serve as a foil to Hoskin's Bart. In addition to Freeman's character, Kerry Condon plays Sam's adopted daughter Victoria, whose relationship with Danny fulfills all the tasks that the older Sam cannot. The duo's resulting interactions with Danny help change the misunderstood killer into a young man. The staggering difference in Danny's relationships are what cause us to truly care about him as a person, a person who for the longest time didn't know any form of love, had not experienced the tenderness of a family, and never had a chance to escape the violent life he had come to accept as inevitable.
The action is fantastically choreographed to the inches, telling a story in and of itself. At the beginning, Danny has the attack style of a dog, charging one target and ignoring the rest. When he gets struck, he simply retaliates and continues with where he left off. However, as the story progresses, we see subtle changes to his style. The core mechanic of "attack one assailant at a time" is still present, but slowly evolves from a style of "attack for brutality" into a style of "attack for preservation." We see Danny change in his actions, as well as his dictations. The scene in the middle of the movie where he fights four other people is stylistically different from the scene at the beginning where he attacks only one man at a time, and that scene is stylistically different from the final action sequences, where Li employs a more rounded motion and fluidity to his fighting.
The movie could be muted with no subtitles on and it would still tell an amazing story, as the fight scenes alone show character growth, a refreshing change from the movie norm. Where many other movies use the fight sequences for the sake of plot progression (such as the equally fantastic Ip Man and it's sequel), Unleashed uses the choreography to show character development above the plot. Where other movies have fighting for the sake of fighting, Unleashed has action for the sake of audience connection. It's a beautiful incorporation of martial arts into character and there should be more movies that strive to accomplish that.
Regarding the acting, it's already been said that Jet Li has his finest display of English-language acting in this film and that Morgan Freeman and Kerry Condon are both above passable, but the real story is Bob Hoskins' wonderfully villainous display. The BAFTA-winning actor, who once played the role of Super Mario, delivers his menacing best in Unleashed as Bart and is truly unlikable. Everything from his diction and syntax to his very voice and mannerisms evoke feelings of anger and resentment, especially when contrasted with the mild-mannered Sam and good-natured Victoria. Quite simply, Hoskins steals the show, an amazing feat when considering his fellow stars are a game Morgan Freeman, a great Kerry Cordon, and a fantastic Jet Li. If nothing else, you should watch this movie to simply see Hoskins' villainy.
In short, this movie is a surprisingly great movie. Calling it a classic would be a bit of a stretch, but calling it great would be an understated compliment. From everyone's wonderful acting to the fast-paced flurry of choreography to the well fleshed-out storytelling, everything is structured very professionally and the end result is a movie that is worth owning no matter who you are.