Actors face a unique crisis, a cultivated identity. They become who their audience wants them to be. For instance, it’s hard to think of somebody like Jim Carrey without thinking of his comedic roles, even if he has since branched out of that market. This pre-packaged notion of who the star is based on what they’ve been in, continues even when they find themselves working out of the confines of one genre. Returning to the example of Jim Carrey, there was such a strong reception to his more dramatic turn in movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but where did that come from? Arguably, it came from his departure from his form. We had grown used to Carrey meaning comedy, but here we had emotion, heart, and sincerity in lieu of over-the-top physical comedy. Actors, like Carrey, as well as actresses seem to be aware of this pre-packaging process, arguably even consenting to it. But what happens when you have a different type of star break the mold? What happens when you have a star defined by his/her physicality break out of the pre-established limitations of the genre? The star that comes to mind when asking this question is Jet Li, as we see him in Louis Leterrier’s 2005 film, Unleashed.
Part of the movie’s function is its recognition of its stars. While there are several big names involved in the production, including Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins, the focus remains on Jet Li throughout marketing and distribution. What is the function of this? Well, as an audience, we are aware of teh concept of stardom, more specifically, Jet Li’s own stardom. By even mentioning Jet Li, there is an understanding that this is a martial arts film. This kind of confinement isn’t necessarily right, but it’s a socially acceptable and frequently perpetuated practice in the world of movies.
So, then where did Unleashed go “wrong”? I use the term “wrong” incredibly loosely because to this day, I believe that it remains one of Li’s strongest films, but in terms of reception and even box office, the movie is somewhat lacking. Personally, the way that the film plays with its audience and their expectations is one of the greatest charms about Unleashed. For those interested in the action aspect, Unleashed has some amazing scenes and truly remarkable choreography in its action sequences. But that’s not all that the movie has to offer. In fact, that’s a relatively small bit of what Unleashed brings to the table.
Even as a fan of martial arts films, I will freely admit that more often than not, the story is secondary. It’s all about the visual, whether it be the color palette or the fights. In this sense, Unleashed isn’t a “true” martial arts film. This undoubtedly colored some people’s feelings about the movie, but for me, it strengthened it. My familiarity with Jet Li had led me to believe that he could do little more than the physically demanding aspects of his role, but here, we see Jet Li act. The character he plays, Danny, is equal parts innocent and cold-blooded killer. We see his willingness to defend his surrogate family, but it is the moments of child-like tenderness, such as his first ice cream cone, that add a new dimension to the action film.
In the end, part of the enjoyment of Unleashed is its playfulness. the way that it plays with audience expectations or the way that it plays with the pre-determined conventions of a martial arts film make it a truly unique experience. While it may not be for everyone, those who are familiar with Jet Li’s previous work or Hong Kong action cinema will enjoy a departure for the actor and the genre.