A series of ugly, brutal fight sequences surround a sweet story of healing in an uneasy combination — or perhaps in view of the content of this movie, collision. But it is what the movie does not show that, for better or worse, takes it out of the category of the typical action movie. It is not the movie(s) you see that are hard to enjoy; it is the movie you don’t see, the one that lurks under the surface.
Jet Li plays Danny, a man who has been programmed by being treated like a dog. He has been conditioned by “Uncle Bart” (Bob Hoskins in an incendiary performance) to follow orders, especially this one: “Get him.”
He lives in a cage. His only possessions are an old stuffed bear and an alphabet book. He turns the pages, looking at K for Kiss, L for Love, and P for Piano. Then he gets pulled out to beat up whoever has made the mistake of failing to pay Bart the money he owes. Or he is entered in a gladiator-style fight to the death for the amusement of the people who find that entertaining.
One day, while Bart and his thugs are in the next room, putting pressure on the owner of an antique store, Danny sees Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner. More important, he hears the piano. Even the untuned notes mean something to him. Sam’s kindness means more. Both give him his first glimpse of compassion and beauty.
When circumstances give him a chance to escape, he finds Sam, who takes him in and does not ask questions. Sam’s stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), a music student, introduces him to silverware, pajamas, laughter, kisses, ice cream, and movies. And feeling safe.
But then Bart gets Danny back again. And Danny will have to fight to return the people he loves.
The dramatic scenes are exceptionally rich, warm, and touching. Li gives his best performance since he started making movies in English. And he still has it in the fight scenes, which are imaginatively staged, especially one battle in a tiny bathroom with a huge, pale, hairless, combatant. Li’s grace and speed are always beautiful to watch, even when he is twisting bones until they snap, crackle, and pop.
But the unspeakable abuse that is the premise of the movie is so deeply disturbing that it throws the entire film out of balance. It is difficult to let go of the story enough to find the action entertaining when we are asked to buy into a story of such unspeakable cruelty. Instead of making us connect more to the characters, it feels manipulative and disturbing.
Parents should know that this movie is, even by the standards of its genre, exceptionally violent. The fight scenes are graphic and brutal, with a lot of bone-crunching sound effects and just-short-of-sadistic injuries. Furthermore, the plot of the movie is based on the premise of the most unthinkably atrocious abuse of a child and adult. Characters use strong language. There are sexual references and situations and a brief glimpse of non-sexual nudity.
Families who see this movie should talk about the idea that a young child can be “programmed” as Danny was in this story. Why did Sam and Victoria trust Danny? Why did he trust them? Why did Bart tell Danny that he could keep life simple?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy other performances by Jet Li, including Hero and Kiss of the Dragon.