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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: originality is overrated.
Unleashed is a perfect example. There’s very little in this film that the average filmgoer hasn’t seen before. It’s certainly not anywhere near the similarly named oddball Besson factory masterpiece. No, at heart it’s a (kick)boxing drama, and it follows all the conventions that one would expect from that trusty sports subgenre. But it’s executed with such commitment, energy and charm (and throws in a couple of interesting twists on the old standards) that it’s impossible to resist.
In a shiny club that I’m pretty sure is just called Bar, there exists a private fight club where two opponents beat the crap out of each other for betting audiences and fortunes are made or lost. A young champion with the phonetically flawless name of Fok Kit (Sun Zhen Feng) marks off his tenth victory with relative ease. And from his behavior in the ring, you immediately expect this to be a story about a cocky champ who needs to learn humility to become a true champion. But no, It turns out he’s actually a kind and decent young man who dotes on his trainer, the ex-champion turned gym owner Dubble Che (Ken Lo, who you might remember from this).
Up-and-coming actress Effy (Venus Wong, playing quiet winsomeness for all it’s worth) joins the gym in order to train for a role as an assassin in an upcoming film and quickly forms a bond with the relentlessly earnest and encouraging Kit. Lok (Sam Lee), a figure from Dubble Che’s past, offers him a big payday for Kit to fight Surat (Zheng Zi Ping, platinum blonde and appropriately scary), a fighter from Hong Kong that is said to have killed several people in the ring. Obviously, this is bad news. And just as obviously, financial difficulties will force Dubble Che and Kit to take that offer.
Despite the backdrop, there’s actually not all that much fighting in Unleashed; much of the focus is on the drama and the character interactions. But when those fights come, action director Chris Collins makes them count; the fights in this movie are some of the best choreographed and viscerally rewarding bouts I’ve seen in some time. As a general rule, the underground fighting genre isn’t a favorite, but the skill on display here is impossible to deny.
And the human drama is the part that makes those fights pop all the harder; because Kit is not some arrogant young punk in need of being taken down a peg but a good natured softie who is playful and endlessly encouraging with Effy, you’re invested in him from the start in a way that makes the inevitable second act downturn hit harder than usual, even when you know exactly how this arc is going to go.
Well… I say you know how it’s going to go. And yes, that’s more or less the case. But how it gets there is something else entirely. Writer/director duo Kwok Ka Hei and Kwok Yat Choi Ambrose really turn up the melodrama as we head into act three, and it is a sight to behold. After a fake out that I can’t believe I fell for, things take a turn that I honestly didn’t believe they’d go through with — — and then they did, and it was amazing.
On this, I will say no more.
I mentioned Sam Lee earlier, as one of the antagonists, though that doesn’t quite seem accurate. Another feature of the film is how generous it is towards its so-called bad guys. Lok has a legitimate reason for his grievances with Dubble; and despite his hissable nature, Surat isn’t some sadistic cartoon psycho as much as just a very effective fighter with a warrior’s mentality. The only character not given a shred of humanity is Director Chan, wildly played in a cameo by Raymond Chiu. A filmmaker who torments Effy after she rejects his advances, he is impressively terrible. If there’s a flaw to the film, it’s that his inevitable comeuppance doesn’t go far enough… this dude never gets the beating he seems to be begging for the whole time.
Truth be told, if you buy a ticket to go see Unleashed you will not be seeing anything new. But if you love good fights, utterly sincere and over-the-top melodrama, and cameos by guys who look like way too much like Tekashi 6ix9ine for their own good (shout out to Kevin Boy as fight bookie Goldie), then you owe it to yourself to give this one a watch.