Monster-in-Law, Kings and Queen, and Mysterious Skin.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
May 13 2005 8:19 AM

Doggy Style

Jet Li is a sweetie monster in Unleashed, and we're still fonda Fonda in Monster-in-Law.

An enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a puzzle. Click image to expand.
An enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a puzzle

Unleashed (Rogue Pictures) is a clever, expertly done variation on the old (but always potent), monster/mad-scientist fairy tale, with the scientist a cockney gangster and the monster a kung fu fighter. Danny (Jet Li) is a near-mute automaton with dead, sunken eyes. Shambling, head bowed, led around on a leash, he comes to life only when his master/creator/father, Bart (Bob Hoskins), aiming to collect a debt, removes Danny's steel collar and snarls, "Get 'em, Danny!" Then Danny is something to see.

The director, Louis Leterrier, was responsible for one of the most overpraised movies of recent years, The Transporter, in which the action was so absurdly sped up, chopped up, and jazzed up (in the manner of an unusually obnoxious music video) that it lost all connection with gravity. Leterrier's technique is better here, but what's really different is the whirligig in the center of the frame. No matter how fast Leterrier cuts, Jet Li seems to cut (and kick and punch) faster. Working with the great fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, Leterrier shapes the action around unbroken shots in which Li does things that no human body should be able to do at speeds that no human body should be able to travel. It's not just that his hands and feet are a blur. It's that you can't quite see how he gets from adversary to adversary: He seems to be taking quantum leaps through space.


His acting is wonderful, too. Did Li study the greatest monster, Karloff? The eyes in the middle of that homely, pockmarked face are first hooded, then beseeching. Bart keeps his good dog shut up in the cellar, and Luc Besson—who wrote the screenplay—was clearly thinking of King Kong when the bereft Danny stares up through a grate at one of Bart's prostitutes.

Unleashed is claptrap, but it would take a stronger man than I to resist it when the main characters are played by Li, Hoskins, and Morgan Freeman—as Sam, the kindly, blind (or is it blindly kind?) piano tuner who speaks to Danny like the hermit in Bride of Frankenstein and then brings him (wounded, bleeding) into his home. This didn't strike me as the wisest move, given the presence of his teenage stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), in the house. But if Freeman's Sam is blind, he can see into a man's heart. Soon, Danny is getting all snuggly, shopping for fruits and vegetables, listening to Mozart… When it's time to fight again, he makes like Ferdinand the Bull and heads straight for the flowers. But kung fu assassins have a way of making it hard to say no.

The picture ends with a burst of pacifism, but there's one terrific fight before then: Jet Li and some really big bald guy in white robes going hand-to-hand in a tiny half-bathroom. Only people who can move so astonishingly through space could make such a witty spectacle out of the lack of it.

From the mailbag re: Monster-in-Law (below):

"Nice review, jerk. Yeah, way to puff up the insanely traitorous ego of Hanoi Jane. Next time, try licking her feet, she might be responsive. Then again, I heard she likes her Americans dead. Have some integrity next time, and let Hanoi Jane's movies go unreviewed, dick."—JM

Dear JM: Thanks for the note. But politics have no place in a movie review. At least that's what people like you are always telling me... 1:01 P.T.

We're used to films that are intellectual jigsaw puzzles—but emotional ones? They're a lot more upending. They not only keep us off base; they can make us question what we thought we understood about the characters' lives. Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen (Wellspring) is an emotional jigsaw that will keep you engrossed for days, maybe years. It has two story lines—one grave and melancholy, one antic—that intersect about halfway through its two-and-a-half-hour running time. It's as if Woody Allen in Melinda and Melinda had ended by merging his comedy and his drama, and the marriage proved unexpectedly fruitful. (Come to think of it, that might have made Allen's overpraised dud more interesting.)

At the start, a woman called Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) talks to the camera. She tells a story about Zeus—the one in which he fell in love with Leda and took the form of a swan to make love to her. Why is she telling us this? A clue is that Nora buys a beautiful illustration of the myth as a gift for her beloved father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), a renowned author and published diarist, who's clearly uncomfortable with it. He's uncomfortable for another reason: His insides are ravaged by a cancer that will kill him in days.



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