Unleashed (2005)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon
Extras: Featurette, Interview, Music Videos

"Unleashed" marks Universal's first HD-DVD release that comes as a combo, featuring the high definition version of the movie on one side of the disc and a DVD version on the flip side. Written and co-produced by Luc Besson, "Unleashed," which is also known as "Danny The Dog," is an unconventional story that is both violent and heartfelt, and with Jet Li in the leading role, it is certainly worth checking out.

The film introduces us to Bart (Bob Hoskins) a ruthless crime boss in Glasgow who has a diverse entourage. Among the usual moronic yesmen he also has Danny (Jet Li), or better, Danny The Dog. Danny has been taken in by Bart as a child and raised like a Pavlovian dog in a cage. As long as he is wearing a collar, Danny is demur and introverted, almost to the point of retardation, but as soon as Bart takes off the collar, Danny turns into the most violent killing machine imaginable, following every one of his master's orders.
One day, after a car accident that leaves Bart and the others of his gang presumably dead, Danny finds himself alone on the streets and the only person he can turn to is the blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) he had met earlier. Sam takes Danny in, knowing nothing about his past or personality, and gives him the warmth of a real home. Victoria (Kerry Condon), Sam's step-daughter, is immediately smitten with Danny and tries to help him come back from his internal isolation and step by step, Sam and Victoria manage to bring the real Danny back with all his charm and smiles. They make him part of their family and by doing so, give Danny something he had never had.

Then, one day, Danny learns that Bart is still alive and Bart wants his dog back!

I had no idea what to expect when putting in "Unleashed" and I was surprised at the turns the film took, and I admire Luc Besson once again for creating this intriguing story. What started out like a regular martial-arts-by-the-numbers film and a super-violent to-the-death version of "Fight Club" suddenly and unexpectedly made a 180 degree turn and became a bitter-sweet drama about a broken character and the attempt to find his redemption. Once he – and the viewer – is finally comfortable that Danny has become a working part of society, the leash is back on and Danny's tormented soul has to find a way out of the darkness that is his past.

The film is wonderfully cast and Bob Hoskins plays his sadistic and deluded character so well that you would quite literally like to smack his face in the next best wall yourself. It hasn't been very often that I despise a movie character so much as I did Bart. Morgan Freeman's warm and gentle portrayal of Sam, who has endless patience and always a nice word for Danny, is the perfect counterpart and creates a wonderful counterpoint. Kerry Condon makes good as the bouncy young Victoria he feels that with dedication she can help get Danny back on track.

And then there is Jet Li, of course, a dynamite stick when unleashed and a wonderful character when recuperating. Under the direction of Yuen Wo Ping, Jet Li shows off some of his insane martial arts skills but also manages to create a sweet character that we get to love later in the film, making this a great part for the actor to show that there's more to his acting range than throwing fists and high kicks.

On this HD-DVD we get to witness a marvelous 1080p high definition transfer of the movie that will once again wow viewers. The grittiness of the first part of the film is reproduced here in astounding detail in every frame. Whether it is bold contrast that is in use here or the sharpness of the footage, the image is constantly awash in detail down to the last mesh in Danny's knitted sweater. Once the second part of the movie begins, the color palette shifts to much warmer and richer tones, away from the highly desaturated cold look of the beginning. Here the color fidelity of the high definition transfer plays its muscle and creates wonderful hues that are stable and never bleed once. Contrast of the transfer is extremely good with blacks that are rock solid and stark highlights that never bloom. The print itself is free of defects or grain, making for a very clean and stable presentation throughout. Overall this is an great-looking presentation that will please viewers, no doubt.

The release comes with a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus audio track in English as well as Spanish Dolby Digital Stereo track. Interestingly, a French track is altogether missing from the release.

While not packed with extras exactly, the release contains a few bonus materials. Sadly, like on Warner's combo titles, these features can be fond only on the DVD side of the disc. It seems to have to do with the fact that combo HD-DVD/DVDs can currently only make use of a single HD layer, leaving barely enough room for the feature film itself.

Included here are a behind-the-scenes featurette entitled "The Collar Comes Off." It is a promotional featurette that, while entertaining, offers little in terms of real information however.

An interview with director Louis Leterrier is also included in which he discusses the genesis and making of the film, and lastly you will find the "Massive Attack" and "The RZA" music videos on the release.

This HD-DVD version features the R-rated version of the film and I also want to point out that Universal has switched to a slightly different packaging for this release. It is a bit less rounded than the previous versions and features a flap that prevents "accidental" opening. As a result, the release boast sonly a single sticker label along the top, instead of having all three open sides of the case super-glued. While this may seem insignificant, I consider this a major step forward in my eyes in usability as well as waste reduction.

"Unleashed" came to me as a surprise and caught me completely off-guard. A nice surprise I have to admit because the film turned out to be much more interesting and intriguing that I had anticipated. This HD-DVD version makes it even more enjoyable as the picture and audio quality are well above average and will remind you why you bought a HD-DVD player in the first place. "Go, get it!" as Bart would say.