Auds craving for a mix of full-bore, Droog-style ultraviolence and shameless sentimentality made palatable by name thesps will find what they want in Jet Li showcase “Danny the Dog.” Tracing the return to civilization of an Asian man whom a loan shark has trained as his personal attack dog, Glasgow-set tale’s assortment of nationalities, races and accents hangs together surprisingly well. Something-for-everyone approach should bolster the Franco-British production’s international career as far as producer Luc Besson’s sales apparatus can carry it. Opening Stateside April 18 under the title “Unleashed,” pic was day’s strongest opener on its Feb. 2 bow in Gaul.
When no-nonsense thug Bart (Bob Hoskins) has trouble collecting a debt, he removes the metal collar around the neck of Danny (Li), who obligingly beats the debtor and any stray henchmen to within an inch of their lives. Bursting with agility and power, Danny’s moves — choreographed with zap-pow zing by Yuen Wo-ping — are a blast to watch.
Bart treats Danny like a dangerous pet, keeping him locked in an underground cage and clad in rags when he’s not using him in deadly human cockfights. However, Danny escapes and is taken in by blind piano tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his 18-year-old stepdaughter, Victoria (Irish newcomer Kerry Condon, with a spot-on Yank accent).
Sam is so generous, nurturing, good-humored and honest that only a thesp of Freeman’s gifts could possibly render him as something more than an inventory of movie cliches. The ultra-patient Sam — who’s relocated from New York so Victoria can study piano at a music conservatory in Glasgow — teaches Danny how to eat with utensils and shop for ripe melons. Sweet, energetic Victoria introduces him to ice cream and gives him his first kiss.
Despite having been raised from boyhood to pound enemies’ heads, Danny, like many a savage beast before him, is soothed by the power of music. However, just when he’s become Sam’s partner in the piano-tuning biz, his past catches up with him.
Scripter Besson’s stamp is evident in the pic’s flagrant blend of pop psychology, fairy-tale armature and wanton violence with a Won Ton vibe. But as one unbelievable incident follows another, soph helmer Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter”) delivers the snappy visuals needed to sock across the patently ridiculous premise. Slick transitions and punchy pace leave just enough time for Hopkins and Freeman to make dopey dialogue sound far smarter than it is. And as both pit bull and puppy dog, Jet Li convinces.
Score by Massive Attack is effective for an action pic with a soft underbelly. Public domain maestro Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart also plays a crucial role in the movie’s proudly melodramatic denouement.