Saturday, July 7, 2007

reVIEW (7)

With Louis Leterrier at the helm of the Hulk sequel, I thought, hey, let’s let Danny The Dog out for a walk. After all, it’s been awhile since the little dude’s been out of his cage…

We all know Jet Li kicks serious butt.
In 2002, he worked with renowned director Zhang Yimou on Ying Xiong (Hero), arguably the thinking man’s martial arts film. In 2005, Li reunited with his Kiss of the Dragon writer/producer Luc Besson (best known for directing the high-octane actioneers, Leon and La Femme Nikita, as well as the gonzo science-fiction epic, The Fifth Element), in Louis Leterrier’s Danny The Dog (internationally known as Unleashed), another wire-fu flick with a difference.

This time out, he shares screen time with Oscar alumni Morgan Freeman (who won for Million Dollar Baby) and Bob Hoskins (nominated for Mona Lisa), to tell the tale of “Danny the Dog,” a man with the soul and spirit of a child, conditioned to have the cold beating heart of a brutal fighter when the collar he is forced to wear is taken off him.
And when fate conspires to take the ruthless Bart (Hoskins) out of Danny’s life, the man-child comes into the care of Sam (Freeman), a blind piano tuner who lives with his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon, of Ned Kelly and Angela’s Ashes). Sam and Victoria, with their kindness and warmth, begin to deconstruct Danny the Dog, teaching him how to be human, as well as the meaning of family.

Described like that, Danny The Dog sounds curiously like Lilo & Stitch; that is, if Lilo & Stitch had fight scenes choreographed by the Master himself, Yuen Wo Ping (whose Hollywood credits include The Matrix trilogy and the Kill Bill saga). So fear not, action junkies, Danny The Dog doesn’t get all Bicentennial Man on us. What it does though, is present us with a curious paradox.

Like Hero before it, Danny The Dog is a film that puts martial arts squarely at its center, but at the same time has a strong anti-violence (and, in Hero’s particular case, anti-war) stance. But, like Danny, we the audience, have been conditioned to associate Jet Li with serious butt-kicking. Thus, there are times when Danny The Dog seems to be at odds with itself. Violence is equated with dehumanization; that we would be no better than wild dogs if we resorted to guns and knives and fists. What then about the audience member who has unabashedly come into Danny The Dog relishing with anticipation the fancy moves and high-flying kicks Jet Li is sure to amaze us with?
Presumably, we are supposed to take stock of ourselves, of our own innate fascination with the cinema of violence. Yet, unlike Hero, that aspect of Danny The Dog doesn’t quite work as well. Hoskin’s Bart is a little too cartoony, and the story’s resolution a little too pat, to make the integrity of the whole as solid as it could have been.

While Leterrier’s direction is adequate (Leterrier co-directed The Transporter with Corey Yuen, and flew solo on the sequel), ultimately, it’s the script by Besson that doesn’t deliver the goods.
We are made to hear the presumably strong filial bonds shared by Sam and Victoria through lines of dialogue by Freeman, without really being allowed to feel that bond through specific plot situations. And though scenes between Li and Freeman—in which Sam teaches Danny how to shop and cook—are effective, they aren’t enough to capture the feeling of family.
On another note, though I love Massive Attack, I feel their brand of music may be a wee bit laid back, compared to the hard-driving techno cuts that have become the standard soundtrack to films of this sort. (Which was, perhaps, the point, but somehow, Massive Attack’s score just didn’t work for me.)

If, however, you’re in it simply for the butt-kicking, then Danny The Dog delivers on that score. This is, after all, Jet Li. And though some of Li’s past films have been more creative in their choreography, there is still some solid wire-fu fun to be had here.
Still, if Besson had spent a little more time teaching the proverbial old dog its new tricks, if he had worked harder to subvert the wire-fu film (and, by extension, the cinema of violence), much as Sam and Victoria deconstruct Danny, Danny The Dog could have turned out to be much more substantial than it actually is.

(The above review began life under the name, “Deconstructing Danny (Teaching An Old Dog…).”)

(Danny The Dog and Unleashed OS’s courtesy of

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