LI AND FREEMAN: Chemistry.
I like Morgan Freeman. A lot. It’s been a joy through the years to watch my old childhood pal Easy Reader from PBS’ “Electric Company” transform into the best actor working today.
Yeah, I said it. I’ll say it again: The best actor working today. Nicholson and Pacino have pretty much been playing Nicholson and Pacino for the past 15 years. Brando is dead. Morgan Freeman, however, is an actor in the grand tradition. As seen in his Oscar-winning turn in “Million Dollar Baby,” Freeman can say more with a long pause than most Hollywood A-listers can with a battalion of screenwriters stuffing script pages up their shirts.
That’s the long answer to why, last Friday, I found myself sitting in a screening of “Unleashed,” the new kung-fu revenger staring Freeman and Jet Li. While I heartily suspected that Freeman was just treating himself to a new Ferrari by appearing here (as was obviously the case with his turn in the horrendously bad “Dreamcatcher” of a few years back), it’s a testament to how much I like to see him do his thing that I went to a movie I’d normally avoid.
A funny thing happened on the way to watching an Oscar-winner mail it in, however. Thanks in a large measure to Freeman, but also to the genuine chemistry he shares with co-star Jet Li, this is a movie with a lot going for it; more about opening your heart than opening up a can of whoop-ass. It’s not a great film, but it is a movie with a soul, something that usually can’t be said of anything that lands on the “action” shelf.
Here, Li plays Danny, a five-foot-tall wrecking machine who serves as the unlikely muscle behind Scottish gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins). Taken from his mother as a small boy, Danny has been raised literally like an animal, kept in a grimy cage and fitted with a dog collar until it’s time to do Bart’s bidding. When that time comes, the collar comes off, his pupils swell to the size of nickels, and Li performs the oddly beautiful martial arts ballet he is best known for up and down the spine of any poor bastard who has drawn Bart’s ire.
After a rival ambushes Bart and the rest of his crew, however, Danny is able to escape the clutches of his master. Wounded, he stumbles into an antique store where blind piano tuner Sam (Freeman) is working. From there, Sam and his adopted daughter Victoria (Kerry Cordon) take Danny in, eventually introducing him to a bigger world and giving him back his humanity. Inevitably, however, Danny’s two lives collide, forcing him to go back to his violent ways one last time in order to protect his friends and free himself from Bart forever.
I know it was Freeman’s decision to make Sam blind, a choice that comes off looking like a stroke of genius when you try to imagine this film otherwise. Without it, Sam would have been too naive; too reckless in his generosity; too willing to give. As it stands, however, Sam’s blindness becomes a kind of metaphor about not judging people by what they did before they came to you in need. Li, too, turns in a fair-to-middlin’ performance, believably going from beast of the field to babe in the woods without ladling on the sap.
Is “Unleashed” predictable? Stereotypical in places? A bit too precious in others? Yes, yes and yes. What I liked about it, however, was that it dared to have things I can’t recall seeing in an action movie since 1994’s “The Professional”: characters I cared about; more internal explosions than external; something more than a body count. In short, it had heart.
— By David Koon
Ferrell’s a kick
Will Ferrell is one of those rare breeds who can make even the nutrition chart on the side of cereal boxes seem hilarious enough to have you wetting yourself. With this persona, Ferrell has been able to star in some very unlikely comedic roles, such as the whimsically innocent Buddy in the Christmas release “Elf,” or his most recent role in the Woody Allen film “Melinda and Melinda.”
With his roots in the bawdy comedy of “Saturday Night Live,” it was once hard to imagine Ferrell adapting as well as he did to a family movie, but he has nevertheless morphed his sweet-idiot character into the kid-pic formula. And while “Kicking and Screaming,” directed by Jesse Dylan (also known for “American Wedding”), isn’t a very good film by any stretch of the imagination, Ferrell seems almost untouchable as one of America’s most loved comedians.
The script, by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick, poses little for its cast to work with, offering nothing more than another Mighty Ducks imitation: Loser kids with no guidance become the underdog champions and meanwhile learn a few life lessons, often by the foibles of their adult mentors.
The story begins with Phil Weston (Ferrell), a clumsy youth trying to live up to the rough-’em-up competitive spirit of his father, Buck (Robert Duvall). By attempting, and embarrassingly failing, to be the all-around star athlete, Phil’s feelings of inadequacy follow him even into middle-age when he becomes a meek family man, health-conscious owner of a vitamin store, and all-around benchwarmer.
Phil can put up with his father’s militancy only until it affects his own son Sam, when Buck, also his grandson’s soccer coach, trades Sam to the worst team in the league, the Tigers. The Tigers having no coach of their own, Phil reluctantly takes on the responsibility and tries to be the role model his father failed to be. But as the story progresses and competition becomes tight, Phil becomes just as obsessed about wins as his “vindictive” father.
Ferrell fans will have a hard time being disappointed in any of his performances. But he’d better start finding smarter films to star in or reading cereal boxes won’t have the novelty appeal it once did.
— By Dustin Allen