“Dog” remembers true master: actionIn "Danny the Dog" (simply "The Dog" here in Korea), Jet Li stars as the title character, who has been imprisoned since childhood by a small-time mob boss (Bob Hoskins) and trained like an animal to kill at his master’s word. In his life as a dog, he has barely learned to speak, much less read or write. But a series of coincidences frees him, and he is taken in by a blind piano tuner named Sam (Morgon Freeman) and his stepdaughter and piano student Victoria (Kerry Condon).
What follows is the predictable sequence of Victoria and Sam opening Danny's eyes to the beauty of existence by teaching him how to play piano, eat ice cream, tell which fruit is ripe and so on. When Victoria removes Danny’s collar, which had been his signal to attack, she tells him, “Everything about you is new now.” In other words, let’s get on with the vengeance.
What makes "The Dog" work as a film is that it never forgets its true master. It may be set in Glasgow and feature only one Chinese fighter (Li), but this is a Hong Kong action flick. The story is melodramatic and cliched by design ―viewers need quick cues to root for the good guy so it can cut to the fight scenes.
That said, Freeman and Condon give surprisingly excellent performances despite mediocre material. Of course, Freeman is Freeman, which means direct and understated. His character, Sam, lost his best friend to illness, married the friend’s ex-wife, and then lost her and his eyesight in a car crash. Similarly, Condon plays Victoria not as an angel descended from heaven to help the man-who-was-raised-as-a-dog, but as a normal, awkward, somewhat dorky teenager with a great talent for piano. These honest portrayals ground the film and keep it from drifting off into flat stereotypes.
The film is anchored by Danny’s recovery of childhood memories, which are tied to music: he vaguely remembers part of Mozart’s Art Sonata. The soundtrack of the film alternates between classical piano and Massive Attack, which suits the main character’s duality.
But let’s not get carried away ―this is a martial arts film, and the fights are the main attraction.
The short opening fights are a mere teaser of Danny’s ability to thrash his opponents. Later in the film, when he is recaptured by his former master and forced to fight in cage matches, and again at the climactic free-for-all in a Glasgow apartment block, you'll remember why you came. Li is in fantastic form ― many of the moves are fresh and creative, while his final opponent, who appears to be a Scottish shaolin monk (Michael Ian Lambert), adds to a satisfying finale.
Louis Leterrier directs the on-location Scotland scenes with the same gritty realism that makes the drama work. His palette of desaturated browns and grays captures the feel of a decaying Glasgow and throws Sam and Victoria’s kindness into sharp relief against the city’s cruel street gangs and sadistic mobsters.
Naturally, all of Danny's enemies fall before him, and he, Sam and Victoria live happily ever after. Although the quiet scenes are well-executed and worthwhile, they’re still just window dressing. You'll go to see Jet Li dancing on people's heads.
Danny the Dog
Action / English
by Ben Applegate