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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A dog-day afternoon to bite you

Danny the Dog

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Louis Leterrier
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 25
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Danny the Dog" is part action film, part newest addition to Luc Besson's longtime theme of social outcasts getting together to form a family.

News photo
Jet Li and Morgan Freeman in "Danny the Dog"

Besson's specialty is to have the family united by violence and mayhem -- two factors that usually destroy other cinematic families, cements the bonds in his flicks. "Nikita" was perhaps the first Besson work that followed such a process: A violent girl delinquent is rescued from prison hell and then trained as a professional killer by a government agent. The two begin to share a father-daughter-like relationship and Nikita begins to embark on her assignments as a way of winning his approval/love. That theme was taken further in "Leon," in which assassin Jean Reno and the then 12-year-old Natalie Portman learn to understand and heal each other via a bloody act of revenge.

And now in "Danny the Dog" the process is repeated, again. Directed by Besson's former protege Louis Leterrier ("Transporter") with Besson himself penning the screenplay (the production notes stipulate that he was very hands-on throughout), "Danny the Dog" is marked by wrenching, excessive violence. Starring Jet Li ("Hero") in the title role, "Danny" takes martial arts to new levels, creating a bone-splitting, skull-shattering, gut-spilling ballet of flying limbs. The fight scenes were choreographed by Yuen Woping ("Kill Bill," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), who insisted on minimal use of digital graphics and effects, and worked with Li to create masterful sequences of speed and grace. When Li pummels an opponent's face, his fists move so fast they seem to create a cartoon-like whirlwind. Can this be happening for real?

And technique isn't the only thing going on display here; humor and wit are evident too. At one point the compact, crouching Li and a tall hulking bald guy wearing a Klan-ish white robe go at each other in a tiny bathroom. Needless to say, Li wins: The smallish Asian guy utilizing the narrow space so effectively.

Danny is invincible, a veritable terminator created solely for the purpose of destroying humans. His creator (and father figure No. 1) is Bart (Bob Hoskins), a Glasgow loan shark who kidnapped Danny when he was 5, and raised him, literally, like a dog. Wearing a metal collar around his neck and kept in a basement cage, Danny only comes to life when Bart takes him out on a "visit," i.e., to threaten the clients who can't pay up. When Bart gives the order "Kill 'em, Danny!" Danny lunges and what happens next to the client goes beyond turning an enemy into dog meat.

Such is Danny's world, the only one he has known and in the beginning it seems that he craves the smallest spark of Bart's affection while at the same time hating him with every fiber of his soul.

Danny's life changes dramatically when a freak incident brings him bloody and wounded into the home of blind piano-tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman). Sam had once been a pianist, but gave it up when he could no longer see. Now his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), is studying piano and Danny is inexplicably drawn to the sounds that come from the keys. Sam kindly, gently explains to Danny (you know the tone Freeman used on Brad Pitt in "Seven") how pianos are "like people. You pound 'em too hard, they break."

Soon, Danny is learning to plunk out a few notes, shopping for fruits with Victoria and feeling like the past years of his life was an extended nightmare. He has found his second father figure.

Bart, however, doesn't waste much time in getting Danny back and the first thing he does is throw Danny in the ring for a death match (one fighter lives, one must die), sponsored by the most powerful gangsters in Glasgow. Danny, though, refuses to perform as expected and, for the first time, Bart realizes how much his faithful dog has changed.

Seething with a rage very similar to jealousy, he sends platoons of henchmen over to Sam's house.

But by this time Danny is no longer a murderous "dog" in rabid mode. Together with Sam, he's listening to a Mozart piano sonata, played by Victoria. But, when it comes down to protecting those he now loves, he hasn't lost in touch.

A lot of "Danny the Dog" is manipulative and contrived, and is perhaps overly dependent on Hoskins' and Freeman's performances to bring some shades of nuance and subtlety. Still, as action movies go this one offers much more than plain action. This is probably the first time Hoskins has played a character so evil, and his facial expressions (especially when he gives Danny the kill command) is something to see. Being Hoskins though, Bart never turns into a two-dimensional baddie and spots of complexities appear on the otherwise pitch-black sheen of his character.

Li, on the other hand, conveys little apart from the obvious emotions of happiness, sadness and rage. This seems quite natural given Danny's upbringing. His vision of the world is clearly marked out in black and white (like a dog's) and in the end, this turns out to be his biggest asset. The U.S. release title was changed to "Unleashed" -- apparently the distributors deemed "Danny the Dog" to be lacking in political-correctness. But, with all respect, the original title seems a lot better suited to the topic.

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