dir. Leterrier
Opens Fri May 13
Various Theaters

In America, Jet Li's always been perceived (and marketed) as just one more action hero wannabe. Elsewhere in the world, his amazing Chinese action epics (Once Upon a Time in China, Hero) have made him one of the most famous actors around. To Americans, though, Li's merely that guy who's in those lame-ass flicks like Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave.

And of all the many injustices of modern cinema, that's one of the biggest--because Li's a great actor, and he's an even better action star. Unleashed does a kickass job of showing both sides of Li; it's as much a drama as it is a kung fu demo reel. And that ungainly combination is pulled off well enough that it's easy to forgive the film's occasional oversights.

Li plays Danny, who's been cruelly raised in near-isolation by a brutal crime lord, Bart (Bob Hoskins), who's trained Danny to be lethal, unforgiving, and utterly obedient. Danny is Bart's ultimate hitman: A conscienceless, viciously effective killer.

But when Danny gets loose, he finds an entirely different world: One inhabited by Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner, who takes the confused, frightened, and suddenly vulnerable Danny under his wing. Danny learns music, tries ice cream, and forms familial bonds with Sam and his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). Everything's just swell--until Bart decides he wants Danny back.

While Unleashed is sometimes clumsy and sentimental, Luc Besson's screenplay is strong enough to give the action sequences some meaning and the characters some soul. (And thankfully, director Louis Leterrier knows how to film a good fight sequence.) Rounding things off? Some kickass action choreography from Yuen Woo-Ping, and a score by Massive Attack and the RZA.

Unsurprisingly, Unleashed is being marketed as a loud, brainless, inartistic Jet Li action-fest. It's a nice surprise, then, that with an unusually deep script and a talented cast (Li, Freeman, Hoskins, and Condon are all excellent), the film proves to be more involving than most pretentious, Oscar-targeted dramas. An even nicer surprise? Getting to see Li flex his acting muscles, and not just the ones that let him kick the asses of twenty guys at once. Though, to be fair, he does that too.