HD DVD / DVD Combo Title: Unleashed
Screen format: 2.35:1 1080p HD DVD/ 480i Anamorphic Widescreen DVD
Studio: Universal Studios Home Entertainment / Rogue Pictures / EuropaCorp
First theatrical release: May 13 2005 US (Released in Hong Kong as “Danny the Dog”
Previously released on DVD/BluRay: Unrated widescreen, Rated R Widescreen & Full Frame versions on October 11, 2005
Director: Louis Letterier
Starring: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon
Sound Formats: English Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and Spanish DD+ 2.0 on HD side, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 on DVD side
Length: 1 hour 42 minutes
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Unleashed stars Jet Li as Danny, a captive since childhood, raised to be a dog: an unfeeling, unthinking, killing machine. Fate leads Danny to the care of blind Sam (Freeman) and his adopted step daughter Victoria (Condon). A lifelong musician and piano tuner, Sam helps Danny learn to cope with the wide world he has never been a part of. To experience society, music, even love. But the dog’s master wants him back, and uncle Bart (Hoskins) will stop at nothing to bring Danny back under his control and into the lucrative to-the-death fighting that he hopes will make him rich.
Unleashed is an interesting combination of classic noir style, modern wire-based hong-kong karate fighting, European crime syndicate backdrop, and family bonding / boy-finds-love story. Throwing all of this together is something of a gamble, as similar films have struggled to excel at any of them, but this combination of interesting genres combined with world class actors in addition to Li’s notable fighting capacity produces more than would be expected. Of course, those expecting typical Jet Li action won’t be disappointed. But the action is always gritty and real, rarely going over the top or letting the crazy wire work detract from the story that is at its heart.
Sound Quality: 5/5
Easily one of the more notable surround mixes yet put on to HD DVD, Unleashed doesn’t just rely on the environmental fighting sound effects to populate the rears, but the music AND the action share this sound stage. One of the themes of Unleashed is that Danny is actually saved by the love of music (and the piano in particular), and sequences where Sam and Victoria play and teach Danny to play sound just brilliant. In addition, the soundtrack features tracks from both Massive Attack and The RZA, and both are interwoven into the full surround scope of the movie as well. The surround kicks in during the opening second of the film in a jarring title sequence and doesn’t let up until the final note of the movie. On the voice side, even Hoskin's grunts and garbled cockney accent and Li's naive babylike dialogue are clear and fresh. Solid all around.
Visual Quality: 4.5/5
One plus of the Combo DVD/HDDVD is that you can simply flip this disk over and recalibrate your eyes for HD. If one were to simply view the DVD side you might find yourself reasonably satisfied. That disk isn’t reference quality by any means, but it captures the nuances of the modern noir look that the film was going for. However, flip it over and view the HD side and it is clear just how much can be gained, even going through a 720p down-conversion from the 1080p master. There is simply extraordinary detail in this transfer, even maps and menus on walls can be read with ease. Shadow detail is deep and appropriately grimy throughout. There is ZERO grain throughout, zero edge enhancement, and zero macro blocking, ever. While the movie’s palette doesn’t put this movie into the class where you would expect to get reference quality video, it perfectly nails the noir mood with gorgeous and unexpected detail. One scene (with Danny tapping melons in a local bodega) is reminiscent of the girl wearing a dress in Schindler’s List, the deeply saturated melon standing out from the dark characters is a clear metaphor for the awakening that Danny is experiencing. Scenes within the pit fighting club go back and forth between the stark lights of the pit and the deep shadows of those in the crowd effortlessly. The warmth of Sam and Victoria’s apartment is palpable, at least until Uncle Bart gets a hold of it!
Extra Features: 2/5
A short introduction by director Letterier, a short featurette titled The Collar Comes Off and two music videos are all that are to be found in the bonus column. This wouldn’t be too bad except for the fact that A. They all tread the same ground and even repeat most of the fight sequences multiple times and B. they are in 480i, found on the DVD side of the combo disk, and are retreads of the version put out on DVD last year minus one featurette found on that release! Universal keeps with the wacky habit of using music from the DVD menu on the HD DVD side, but doesn’t use the accompanying video. And with a price point north of $30, the combo disk has not earned its keep.
Overall: 4/5 (not an average)
Unleashed is a lesson in what the Combo HD DVD/DVD disk is capable of, and its deficiencies as well. On one hand, using the DVD side to shovel Standard Def extras, often from previous releases (and not even including all of them!) is disappointing. On the other hand, saving ALL of the HD side for video and sound quality clearly pays off. This is a gorgeous looking and sounding film and one I will use to show off the clarity the format is capable off. Still, the extra cost for the combo privilege is a huge barrier to entry and does nothing to entice more people to buy into the format.
On its own merits though, this disk clearly deserves to be “Recommended”. A well crafted, unique, story that blends a half dozen different genres together with top notch acting, video quality, and sound quality puts it squarely in that ball park. Adding some more extras and putting a more realistic price point could have sent it even higher!