A few years ago, when I was working in a Glasgow restaurant, someone informed the kitchen that the mighty Morgan Freeman was in for dinner. Of course we all sneaked a look, but what was more fascinating to me was one of the other men at his table. His name was Jet Li. For any fan of martial art cinema this was like seeing De Niro, but the question remained; what the hell were Freeman and Li doing together in Glasgow? The answer was Danny the Dog.
Danny the Dog, known in the US as Unleashed, was a French/US/British co-production which was shot in Glasgow in 2004. As well as Freeman and Li it also stars Bob Hoskins in full The Long Good Friday mode. It was directed by Louis Leterrier (Transporters 1&2, The Incredible Hulk) and written by the legendary Luc Besson (Subway, The Big Blue, Leon, The Fifth Element). Quite a pedigree, and although it has its faults, this is a film that deserves to be reassessed.
Jet Li is Danny who has been taken by the man who murdered his mother, gang boss Bart (Hoskins doing what he does better than almost anyone else), and trained as a fighting machine; literally raised like a dog. He becomes the muscle behind Bart’s debt collecting and protection rackets. Controlled by a collar which inhibits any retaliation, Danny behaves as an unthinking automaton, apparently all humanity lost. Even as he metes out his punishment there is always the sense that Danny cannot be blamed as he has no free will, or so it appears, and is compelled to act out Bart’s wishes. In this the film is similar to earlier Besson scripts La Femme Nikita
where charismatic but damaged trained killers have been left with little choice to act differently. The script may be Besson but the style is pure Leterrier as the action is reminiscent of that found in his Transporter
films; fast cut, high octane, martial arts. However there is much more to Danny the Dog
than pure chop-socky.
Things take a different turn after Danny and Bart are involved in an ambush and Danny escapes and is taken in by Sam (Freeman), a blind piano tuner, and his step-daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) who has come to Glasgow to study music. Here Danny finds a less violent security, one where he is taught to appreciate music (he becomes Sam’s assistant) and is shown compassion, kindness and love for the first time since his mother’s death. It is in these scenes where Li really comes into his own, struggling to shake off his life long and brutal conditioning and accept to trust his new ‘family’. It could be argued that Sam and Victoria are simply reconditioning Danny with their own set of values, yet it has to be accepted that these are less likely to result in violent death. In the end Danny will make his own choice.
Here’s the trailer:
The soundtrack is one of the most memorable things about the film. It is Massive Attack at their best and the album, also called Danny the Dog, is one I recommend even if you never intend to watch the film. This is one of the quieter moments called Two Rocks and a Cup of Water:
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Danny the Dog is the lightness of touch in the way it uses Glasgow as its setting. For those who know the city and its landmarks there is never an attempt to hide the location, but neither does it pander to the usual stereotypes and cliche. Having the none more Cockney Hoskins as an underworld figure feels perfectly natural, as does the multi-cultural family of Freeman, Condon and Li. This is because no big deal is ever made of it, and for once Glasgow, and by extension Scotland, is accepted as a multi-cultural society where people from all over the world choose, or are sometimes compelled, to make their homes. It would be nice to think that what Danny the Dog started will continue with film makers both at home and abroad following its lead. Ahem.