“I don’t wanna hurt people anymore.” It’s not exactly what you expect to hear from the martial-arts star of a kick-ass action movie, but Unleashed ain’t your typical kick-ass action movie, either. You might call it a reconsideration of the action movie, actually, or a redemption of the genre: the superviolent actioner as a plea for nonviolence. James Cameron did something thematically similar with Terminator 2, of course, but here, it’s… sweeter, funnier. And sadder and more tragic, too.
Unleashed is no less than a fable for the 21st century, a tale of leaving behind our indoctrination and our cultural programming to find a new comfort zone that isn’t about race or tribe but about beauty and kindness and art and the more rarefied things that transcend the concrete stuff we fight about as a species (land, resources, money). Sure, you can look at this as just another action movie, maybe one a tad more thoughtful than most, but look a little harder and you see that it verges on the brilliant, becomes a modern fairy tale with a power to speak to our most elemental fears — of isolation, of loneliness, of difference — and desires — for love, for acceptance, for family — one with a power to haunt our dreams and nightmares.
It’s the newly astonishing Jet Li who says that destined-to-be-famous line — “I don’t wanna hurt people anymore” — although we wonder at first if his Danny is even capable of speech. Raised in isolation, treated like an animal, he’s the abused pet of a Glasgow gangster, Bart (an appropriately intense and at times even nauseating Bob Hoskins: Beyond the Sea, Vanity Fair), and the gangster’s enforcer: taught to be lethal when his collar comes off, he ensures that Bart’s debtors pay up. The inhumanity of Danny’s life, and the twisted parody of familial love with which Bart justifies it, are played so straightforwardly by screenwriter Luc Besson (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Fifth Element) and his director protégé Louis Leterrier that the conceit is at once strikingly original — and strikingly horrifying; a man in a collar? oh… — and so obvious an extension of the frequent barbarity of the action genre that you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before.
Bart’s world is horrendously brutal and unfeeling, of course, but hardly to a degree unrecognizable to anyone who’s seen a Vin Diesel movie. It’s the other world of gentleness and compassion that sits beside it in this same movie that makes Unleashed so extraordinary, in more than one way. See, Danny escapes from Bart’s clutches and falls in with a blind piano tuner, Sam (Morgan Freeman: Million Dollar Baby, The Big Bounce), and his young stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon: Ned Kelly, Angela’s Ashes), a music student… and they and everyone they introduce Danny to are warmly accepting of his oddity and his weird shyness — he has little experience of the world and is emotionally a child, and they can all deal with that just fine. It is, perhaps, as much a fantasy as the savagery of Bart’s world, which includes fight clubs and human beings battling to the death for the entertainment of others… that is to say, perhaps not much of a fantasy at all. The stark and vivid contrasts of the two realms Danny travels between are jarring — though Leterrier never loses control of the film, never makes us feel as if we’re watching two different movies — but if anything, they are a jarring reminder that these two worlds sit side by side in reality, too, if rarely in the movies (at least not so well as they do here) and we chose which one to live in. We can decide to live with mistrust and fear, with fists and guns solving our problems, or we can live in the kind of place where — heh — a black man and a white girl and a Chinese guy can eat potato-and-leek soup together for dinner and play Mozart on the piano for dessert.
The script is wonderful, aching with fairy-tale Frankensteinian metaphors: the welcoming embrace of a blind man and the beauty and freshness of a young girl and the redemptive power of music and a creature violent not of his own volition struggling to liberate himself. But Li (Hero, Cradle 2 the Grave) sells it to us, showing off a capacity for vulnerability and quietude we haven’t seen before. There’s a robust, athletic grace to how he moves in the fight scenes — if, say, Chow Yun-Fat is Fred Astaire, then Li is Gene Kelly — but it’s how well and with what inner strength Li is suddenly sitting still that really speaks to the possibilities of personal transformation inherent in all of us.
There’s just one world in the world of Crash, one in which all the sharp dichotomies and contrasts of Unleashed come, well, crashing down into a swamp of fear and anger and bitterness, where black and white and every color in between live together but not comfortably, engaging in an endless vicious-cycle roundrobin of unthinking hatred and cruelty and helplessness. Only no one here realizes they’re all on a noxious merry-go-round, at least not at first, so no one knows to get off… and then the few people who do decide to get off discover that that’s not so easy after all.
With its clear and obvious choices — think Eddie Izzard’s “cake? or death?” bit — Unleashed really is a fairy tale next to Crash, where half the time when you think you’ve got a grasp on what’s the “right” thing to do and the “right” way to live, you turn out to be wrong, even if the other guy is wrong, too. How the world can possibly be such a mess, such a complicated human disaster, and yet one film can clearly and simply cut through all the bullshit to lay bare the foundations of the mess is startling and mysterious to me, but that is the cinematic sorcery at the heart of Crash: it holds up a mirror to reality that is so incisive and so harshly honest that, at moments, it sears right through you and jolts you with its wisdom.
This is a sprawling story of people getting spat on or kicked in the gut and paying it forward, spitting and kicking the next person in line, and even though some of the reasons for that are ostensibly tied to race here, that’s almost incidental — that wouldn’t have to be the case, but in a melting pot like Los Angeles, chances are good that the next person you meet is not going to look a helluva lot like you. It makes it easier, for most people here, that that next person you’re in a malicious mood to kick just happens to be the same color — not your color — of the person who just kicked you for no reason. It’s not that Crash ever justifies racism or general meanness or exculpates bigots or miserable bastards of other stripes… but it’s looking past the surface to find a root cause that maybe is fixable if we can pinpoint it.
And that root cause, Crash suggests, is fear. Man, this is a hard film to get through — all the characters are so afraid and worn out and on edge just getting through the day, and even the ones that you’re dead set against liking or at least begrudgingly sympathizing with at first eventually wear you down once their frailties are exposed: like Sandra Bullock’s (Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, Two Weeks Notice) bitchy rich suburbanite and Matt Dillon’s (One Night at McCool’s, There’s Something About Mary) rough-edged cop. And other characters let you down just when you thought they had something figured out. But it’s tremendously rewarding, too — not just because, wow, Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, Ocean’s Twelve) who’s always fantastic has never been better, or because actors like Bullock and Ryan Phillippe (Igby Goes Down, Gosford Park) demonstrate that good material can prompt them to tap previously unplumbed reserves. There’s so much desperate, fervent seeking for answers, by screenwriter (with Bobby Moresco) Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), making his feature directorial debut, and so much common ground that’s discovered, even if only the audience and not the characters realize it.
But there is one devastating moment in the film, a scene that I don’t imagine I will ever forget the power of, in which one character is suddenly confronted with the frangible humanity of someone he’d previously dehumanized in the basest way. The genius of Crash comes down to this one electrifying moment, when the vicious cycle is turned upside down and we — audience and fictional characters alike — are shocked out of rote habitual thinking and forced to really recognize that everyone else is just as alive and scared as we ourselves are.
Oscars Best Picture 2005: Crash