Movie - 4.5
Been a while since I'd seen this movie. I used to own in on DVD and saw it something like 3 times before selling it to make room for the transition to Blu-ray. It took a while, but it's good to finally see this title on BD. And after so many years, I have to say I actually like it a lot more now than I did initially. Danny the Dog (aka Unleashed in the U.S.) is the story of Danny (Jet Li), a poor soul raised from childhood as a human attack dog that does the dirty work of small-time Glasgow kingpin, Bart (Bob Hoskins). Danny is literally treated like a dog given a collar to wear 24/7, is fed food from a can, and lives a pretty desolate life as nothing more than a mere animal. But one day, Danny befriends a blind piano tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman) who, through a stint of piano tuning, manages to elicit some of Danny's human side, if but for a few minutes. Then, when an accident injures Danny and sets him free from the grips of his cruel master, he seeks out Sam, who accepts him with open arms and offers to care for him with the help of his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). And in their time together, the two manage to re-humanize Danny and salvage his broken spirit from the dark depths of violence and emotional turmoil. This couldn't have been a more perfect role for Li. As apparent by his other Hollywood films, while he does show some actual acting prowess (though more so in his Chinese work) from time to time, the language barrier has always been his weak point. And what better a way to utilize his not-so-good English than with a character that's more about movement (which Li is a master technician of from all that wushu) and less about dialogue? Throw in the opposing fatherly-forces in Hoskins and Freeman (who play outstanding contrasts to one another) and some cutesy lighthearted bonding moments with Condon, and you've got a fairly gripping story. Needless to say, it's also a Jet Li movie choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, and the action is absolutely brutal when you get down to it. But what surprises me the most is how the entire film manages to be not just an entertaining romp, but also a touching tale and character drama. This is easily Louis Leterrier's best film to date with a little help from his mentor, Luc Besson, in the writing department, and soon-to-be director, but current DP, Pierre Morel. In fact, speaking of Besson, I'd even go so far as to say Danny the Dog was this decade's Leon, albeit a tad less developed, but excellently portrayed, nonetheless.
Video - 4.5
It's been too long for me to remember what this looked like on DVD, but thankfully the extras are in SD, which is enough to remind me of the difference in quality. That being said, Pierre Morel's photography looks excellent. With Leterrier wanting to achieve a film noir-look, colors aren't particularly vibrant. In fact, just about any scene outside of Danny's bonding moments with Sam or Victoria are very cold, drab, and opaque. There are lots of blues, whites, grays, and charcoals used in a majority of the gangster life sequences when we see Danny living as a dog. From his dirty clothes to the grimy streets of Glasgow, the production design gives off a depressing quality befitting of the life Danny has lead to that point. Contrast is also slightly more desaturated in these scenes, though black levels are maintained very well throughout. During the happier times in Sam's apartment or in the various other non-criminal locales, hues are much fuller and create a sense of warmth to counteract the coldness of the former. Contrast and saturation feel more natural making flesh tones appear very lifelike and just a lot more pleasant to the eye. Image detail is actually a lot sharper than I remember and especially in comparison to some of the SD shots from the extras giving the visual presentation a nice sense of depth and HD pop. For instance, you can see all the little indentations of the food at the supermarket, the lining of Victoria's braces, or the fuzzy textures on Danny's teddy bear. The film also possesses a fine layer of film grain to keep the picture feeling gritty, and there appear to be no signs of DNR. There are some instances of Edge Enhancement and some scenes of the movie are a bit nosier than others (like the really, really dark scenes), and there are occasions of dirt and debris popping up here and there, but overall I'm very satisfied with the quality of the picture, especially in comparison to those SD shots from the DVD port. I think all the various color schemes, filters, and whatever other methods they used to portray the different outlooks of Danny's life are a great way of compliment and contrast for another.
Audio - 5.0
In addition to an excellent video transfer, Universal also outputs a booming and reference-level audio experience. The DTS-HD track has quite a bit of rumble to it. LFEs are the most prominent feature making their mark through the pounding bass of the music and various low end sound effects (like dramatic whirring and such). Dialogue is crisp and clear from the center with no distortion or dropout problems, while a majority of the sound effects are not quite front-heavy per say, but slightly more towards the front as a result of the sound design. It's not until guns start blazing that the rears get their fair share of noise distribution, which for all intents and purposes sound awesome because there really aren't that many sequences of it till around the end of the movie. But being most notably a martial arts-centric film, a majority of the effects come from the frequent punching, kicking, whacking, and body thuds. Again, much like the gunplay, there's not an incredible amount of the stuff, but when the violence starts, you can really hear and feel it. I was very happy to feel the thumps and wuds emanating from the sub-woofer and wouldn't expect anything less from this genre. The music by Neil Davidge and Massive Attack give the film a great balance of upbeat ambience for the action and slow, mellow piano/orchestral pieces for character development. Again, directionality and separation don't do a whole lot and are more sporadic in the first and second acts of the film, but immersion is excellent when the fighting ensues. Obviously, the best parts you could use for reference are Danny's fight in the arena and his battle against that bald-headed, wannabe Shaolin monk white guy (never liked his look, but he did a pretty good job keeping up with Li). The arena fight has a lot of sound immersion from the crowd and music with some great body hits and weapon clash effects. And the white guy battle is reference brutality, when they start fighting in the toilet room and literally beat the crap out of each other I can't help but find that scene violently beautiful. The clarity of the smacking of fist on head, fist to body, then foot to head are quite rousing.
Extras - 2.0
While everything else about this disc is great, the extras are very underwhelming and a bit of a disappointment. First, there's a 5-minute clip of Leterrier talking about the film where he basically gives the premise, tells a little bit about the kind of picture he wanted to make, all the star power involved, and how great it was to work with all of them. It's very short and not a bad watch, but an audio commentary would've been nicer. Then there's the feature "Serve No Master," which basically shows the fight choreography for the scene in the arena with some snippets of commentary from Li rounding out to about 10 minutes. Most of it is the fight itself taken straight from the movie with a little bit of P-i-P comparisons from the filming. This one is pretty skipable. Next, there's "The Collar Comes Off," which is a little bit more in-depth about the overall filming and writing. It recycles most, if not all of the commentary and interviews from Serve No Master, though does have some input from Freeman, and a little more from Hoskins. This feature is about 12 minutes long, but again is severely lacking in depth. And lastly, there are a couple of music videos featuring the music of Massive Attack and The RZA. Altogether these videos are about 4 minutes total and are nothing more than highlight reels of the fight scenes. The extras aren't shabby, but they're not that interesting either. Oh well, better than nothing.
Overall - 4.0
Danny the Dog is probably my favorite non-Chinese Jet Li film to date (although I'm not really sure which side I'd put The Forbidden Kingdom on, it's Hollywood-made, but for the most part was made in China..). It's a riveting story about an unfortunate person who came to live a sad life, but was saved from it with a little bit of kindness and lotta' bit of martial arts to take his pursuers out. Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set a new standard for me in terms of wushu/wuxia movies with a story, I've found some pretty good gems since then in Hero, Danny the Dog, Huo Yuan Jia (aka Fearless), and maybe even Chi Bi (aka Red Cliff) if I ever get around to watching part II. But I definitely can say is this another one of the greats. With excellent video and reference audio (though a disappointing amount of extras), Danny the Dog (or Unleashed, or whatever you're used to calling it) comes highly recommended.