"Unleashed": Smash Hit
At age 42, Jet Li can still kick acres of butt. His spectacular repertoire of flips, jabs, leaps and leg sweeps is as amazing now as it was back in the early '90s, when it fueled such martial-arts masterworks as "Once Upon a Time in China" and "The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk." So his latest film, "Unleashed," is a must-see for Jet Li fans — he's so good in it, in the end he even prevails over the movie's boldly improbable and distracting plot.
Li plays Danny, who's been raised from childhood in a cage, like a pit bull, by a brutal loan shark named Bart (Bob Hoskins). Bart has turned Danny into his own private murder machine. ("Get 'em young," he tells an associate, "and the possibilities are endless.") Whenever Bart removes the dog collar that's affixed to Danny's neck and points him toward someone who's unwisely welshed on a debt, that person can start measuring his life, or at the very least his mobility, in minutes. And when Bart receives an offer for Danny's lethal services from an illicit fight club in which combatants batter each other to the death, things start getting really nasty.
In the midst of all this mayhem, for reasons too unlikely to bother going into, Danny encounters an elderly blind piano-tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman), who intuits Danny's essentially gentle nature and notices that he seems to be attracted to the piano. Danny eventually escapes Bart's clutches and takes up temporary residence in the house Sam shares with his stepdaughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon), an aspiring classical pianist. Victoria draws Danny out of his whipped-dog shell by introducing him to music, ice cream, laughter, kissing — the good things in life that he's never experienced. But Bart and his gang of thugs are still prowling around, and Bart wants Danny back. Inevitably, he gets him.
As I say, the fight scenes in this movie, choreographed by Li and (who else?) Yuen Wo Ping, are phenomenal. You can almost feel the pain when Danny takes on a team of ferocious opponents in the fight-club death pit. (Director Louis Leterrier shoots the action sequences with withering, fist-in-your-face expertise.) And Danny's all-through-the-house battle with a giant, bald-headed, white-robed kung-fu assassin is a genre classic. But ...
Have I mentioned that this Anglo-French movie is set in Glasgow, Scotland? Why? No idea. It certainly creates a number of plot problems that gnawed away at my concentration throughout the film. First of all, what's a spluttering Cockney like Bob Hoskins doing running a loan-shark operation so far from London? And why are we supposed to believe that Sam and Victoria have moved from New York to Glasgow so that she can study at a prestigious music school? Are there no prestigious music schools in New York? Juilliard, for example? And wouldn't such a transatlantic relocation, and the subsequent rental of a rather large house, be an awfully expensive undertaking for a blind piano-tuner?
I was also surprised to learn that Glasgow was a city of such vast depravity that it could sustain a battle-to-the-death fight club and offer sufficient employment opportunities to keep a giant, bald-headed, white-robed kung-fu assassin busy. Then, too, there's the question of how Bart came to have custody of Danny in the first place. There is an attempted explanation of this toward the end, but it's muddled and unsatisfying.
Nobody goes to kung-fu movies to bathe in their narrative grace, of course. We go to them to see action of the most extremely violent sort delivered with style and wit. We go to get clobbered and like it. Probably nobody does this sort of thing better right now than Jet Li, and it's recommendation enough to say that in "Unleashed," he does it again.
"Mondovino": Who Nose?
Who is killing the great wines of Europe? Jonathan Nossiter considers that question at length in his documentary "Mondovino," and he comes up with several answers — although it may be too late to do much about the problem.
Briefly, in an age of globalization, it makes commercial sense for any large wine-making enterprise with global ambitions to come up with a style of wine that can be sold anywhere — a lowest-common-denominator vino. This view does not favor the wines of France, for example, because French wines, which traditionally are crafted to reflect their particular terroir — a word denoting soil, land, a magical sense of place — are highly individualistic. They also come in such a formidable jumble of styles and names — Chateau This, Domaine That — that relatively few people are willing to devote the necessary effort to make sense of their mad profusion. Finally, and most off-puttingly, from a commercial perspective, the very best French wines must be aged for five, 10, 15 years, or even longer, to reach their peak. Who has the time (or the requisite temperature-controlled cellar) for such a thing these days?
No, what's required for world conquest is a smooth, easy-drinking wine with soft tannins, no rough edges — a wine rather like the merlot so roundly loathed by the fussy oenophile played by Paul Giamatti in "Sideways." If such an insipid über-wine as this were ever to take off worldwide, other winemakers would note the soaring profits and quickly get the message — and before long, all wine would start tasting a little bit like merlot.
Such is the doomsday scenario suggested by Nossiter's film. In contemplating it, he focuses on one big winemaker, California's Robert Mondavi; one very busy international wine consultant, the Frenchman Michel Rolland; and the most influential wine critic in the world, Robert Parker, of Monkton, Maryland.
Mondavi's desire to acquire European vineyards has created considerable controversy, especially in France. Some local vignerons see it as a new form of American cultural imperialism; others salivate at the thought of what a massive injection of big-time American marketing muscle — and commercial wine-making savvy — might do for their faltering bottom lines.
Meanwhile, Rolland, a jolly, bearded Frenchman, is flying around the world offering his wine-making advice to more than a hundred clients (Mondavi among them). Rolland's mantra is "micro-oxygenate," as in: "Let's micro-oxygenate that barrel." And what is this micro-oxygenation? "Know what I think?" he says to Nossiter, in the presence of an obviously clueless vineyard owner. "Best not to explain it at all. The goal's simple — make things better. You don't need to ask why."
Rolland admits the obvious: He's teaching profit-hungry wine-makers around the world how to make the kind of wine that he prefers — not the "best" wine, in any objective sense; only the best wine in his opinion. This elusive subject of taste is even more to the point in considering the career of Rolland's longtime friend, Robert Parker. Over the course of the last three decades, Parker has become so powerful that his opinion of a wine, as expressed on a numeric scale in his subscription-only "Wine Advocate," can make or break its producer. French wine authorities worry that some vineyards are illegally altering their strictly regulated wines in order to find favor with Parker, whose tastes — for deep-colored reds, for example — are well-known. The French government, on the other hand, has awarded Parker its prestigious Legion of Honor. Parker himself has insured his nose and palate for a million dollars.
The idea that Robert Parker's estimation of something as complex as wine must supersede any dissenting opinion is of course ridiculous. There are bad wines, and there are good wines, and there are very good wines. The opinion of someone like Parker may be suggestive (the man has, after all, tasted a lot of wine); but how could it possibly be definitive? I think the final word in this regard is to be found in an excellent little book that I would have to recommend over "Mondovino," a film that's interesting, and sometimes funny, but terribly edited and way too long. The book, an investigation into the vagaries of taste, is Lawrence Osborne's "The Accidental Connoisseur." In it, Osborne quotes a French winemaker named Pierre Siri saying something with which any non-delusional wine enthusiast would probably agree: "You can't really describe wine; you can only remember it."