NYAFF XIX Review: UNLEASHED Punches Out With Underdog Reclamation And Vigor
It’s not easy to avoid certain storytelling tropes when diving into the action genre, particularly of a sport-fighting variety, and so the usual goal going forward is to flesh out as much as you can to deliver something fresh and entertaining to the masses. Bearing this in mind as we gauge directing duo Kwok Ka-hei and Ambrose Kwok’s newest film, Unleashed, there’s something instantly redeeming in their treatment of an underdog fight drama, and it certainly helps having the starpower it had with the likes of Ken Lo and Sam Lee on board.
Unleashed goes unabashed into the arena for the story Fok Kit (Sun Zheng Feng), a champion in the underground fighting circuit under the tutelage of his wonky-kneed coach, Dubble Che (Ken Lo). Kit’s got a hot streak going after winning nine matches in a row while the two work to maintain Che’s boxing gym where one day, a brief reunion awaits for Che, and Pak Lok (Sam Lee), an old friend of Che’s who’s been released from prison two years early following an eight-year stretch.
Their tête-à-tête soon arouses talk of potential money-making prospects for everyone, with a fight between Kit and Lok’s own fighter, Surat (Zheng Zi Ping), a lean, mean brawler who’s made a name for himself in Thailand. While Che contemplates, Kit befriends a young actress named Effy Lam (Venus Wong) who enlists Kit to train her for a sequence of moves to help land a lead movie role, and their friendship eventually blooms into something more concordant, especially for Lam whose recent career prospects are being mired by a sleazy director.
When Che soon starts facing pressure from his landlord, both Kit and Che take the match, though it’s not long before Lok’s true intentions are exposed, when the normally undaunted Kit is left crippled and at his lowest point after fighting Surat for the first time. What follows for Kit is a months-long joruney of healing, and battling the lingering self-doubt that not only threatens his gift and the purpose it gives him, but his ability to protect the people he loves.
Unleashed isn’t unlike anything we’ve seen before in martial arts movies. What matters the most, however, is that it keeps things mostly simple in the course of its execution. The friendship between Kit and Lam brews more correlatively than romantically and feels all the more nuturing to the benefit of the story, and there’s no getting around just how much Ken Lo has excelled as an actor over the years; He leaves off with an impressive performance in supporting capacity for this venture as the grisled boxing coach who wants nothing more than to keep his gym alive, and while he’s focused on maintaining Kit’s fruition, it’s Che’s connection to Lok that catalyzes the film throughout.
Lam’s own story arc arouses a few scares midway in the film. There’s a moment when she’s suddenly faced with a diar choice from a director she wants to work with who has to recast her role following an incident. The plot here pulls a fast one, and it’s a delightful turning point that goes to the heart of the film’s messaging which directly relates to Kit’s own turmoil.
The movie isn’t a fight scene-heavy spectacle, but it’s got all the flair it needs thanks to Sun’s screen presence and character delivery. He’s as optimistic and brave as a fighter can be at the top of his game. He’s the little guy you can’t stop rooting for when all that self-confidence goes on the backburner, and it counts by the final act when he faces off once more with Surat, a fighter who bares no compunction with hurting anyone he needs to, including the people in his corner.
The fight choreography itself also evolves overtime with Sun eventually reverting to an array of techniques that can help him win. Pay your thanks to Chris Collins – best known for bringing the fight to the lens in roles films such as Wolf Warrior, SPL: Paradox and Ip Man 4: The Finale – who takes a back seat for his first outing as fight choreographer, in addition to a brief cameo along the way. Certain angles are used to hide the use of doubles at particular times, though the fight scenes are solidly delivered without the usual negatives that hamper action sequences, with the actors putting in much of the work themselves, and it shows.
The most emotional takeaway from the film will be watching Ken Lo on screen who brings a transformative touch to his craft just a little more in his roles everytime, and Unleashed is no exception either. It’s a performance that inherently rewards lead actor Sun who leaves his footprint in this amply entertaining bit of genre fan service, right down to the bone-crushing finish.
NYAFF streams for its 19th installment from August 28 through September 12. Click here to learn more!
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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