UNLEASHED "Poignant" and "touching" aren't words usually associated with a Jet Li flick, but Unleashed isn't your standard action yarn. That's not to say Li has completely gone the Sense and Sensibility route: Rest assured that fans of martial arts mayhem will leave satisfied with the bone crushing, rib cracking and face pounding on display. But Li tries to give a multi-faceted performance in this one, successfully eliciting sympathy in the role of Danny the Dog (the film's title during its European run). Danny has spent his life in the service of a ruthless Glasgow mobster known as Uncle Bart (Bob Hoskins), who makes Danny sleep in a cage, feeds him scraps of food and keeps him docile via a collar around his neck. But whenever Bart removes the collar (usually in the presence of deadbeats who owe him money), Danny turns into a savage beast who can pummel the opposition. A chain of circumstances allows him to escape from his master; he falls in with a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his teenage stepdaughter (Kerry Condon), who eventually accept him as one of the family. Treated with respect and allowed to get in touch with his softer side, Danny adores his new life and is less than thrilled when Bart reappears, ready to reclaim his "pet." A handful of thrilling set pieces goose the proceedings, yet it's the acting that gives this its advantage: Freeman packs his usual authority, Condon is an absolute delight, and Hoskins clearly relishes the return to the UK underground milieu of his career-making films The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. And then there's Jet Li, whose puppy-dog demeanor as the domesticated Danny the Dog adds some tears to the expected blood and sweat.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR Jay Anson's 1977 novel The Amityville Horror was such a worthless piece of literature that the only way it could have moved any copies was for its author and its limelight-soaking subjects to declare it was all based on a true story. That did the trick: The book, about a couple who insisted their house was haunted, became a best-selling phenomenon, though it was soon discredited as pure hokum. A clunky 1979 movie version followed, and now we get the remake, which manages to be even worse than its screen antecedent. Leads Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George try their best, but as a creep show, this slicked-up version is painfully inadequate, preferring to traffic in quick shots of blood-dripping ghouls than establishing any real sense of dread. I've seen episodes of Sesame Street that were more frightening than this generic junk.
THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY It was only a matter of time before Douglas Adams' cult phenomenon - which had already moved from radio to print to television - would eventually complete the journey by edging into cinema. Yet as a movie, H2G2 is only a mixed bag, crammed with many inspired bits but never coalescing as a whole. Reminiscent of both Monty Python and The Fifth Element, the movie embodies a cheeky spirit that becomes harder to appreciate once the picture begins to buckle under the weight of an overly busy plot. Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel (as the only two humans to escape earth's destruction) and Mos Def (as a friendly alien) are appealing, but Sam Rockwell's grating turn as an intergalactic maniac is a detriment. 1/2
HOUSE OF WAX My contempt for this remake of the 1953 Vincent Price classic is so great, I'm reluctant to even call it a film, as that designation automatically places it in the pantheon of works by Welles, Hitchcock, Bergman and even Ed Wood. Suitable only for unemployable teens and speech-slurring rednecks, this follows a group of dim-witted college-age kids as they find themselves lost in the Louisiana wilds and become slasher fodder for murderous twin brothers. It takes an eternity of running time for the kids to reach the town, and even after the slaughter begins, director Jaume Collet-Serra and scripters Chad and Carey Hayes still take time out for an obligatory interlude that allows co-star Paris Hilton a chance to striptease down to her undies. Sadistic beyond compare, this House has been constructed by mercenaries, not moviemakers.
THE INTERPRETER An interpreter (Nicole Kidman) working at the United Nations overhears a plot to assassinate the tyrannical president of her African homeland, but the Secret Service agent (Sean Penn) assigned to the case thinks she's hiding more than she's revealing. As a thriller, The Interpreter never matches the sweaty-palms intensity of director Sydney Pollack's excellent Three Days of the Condor, though it largely gets the job done. But between the soft-hearted assessment of the UN, the creation of a fictional African nation to propel the narrative (why not employ an actual African country that's had to deal in modern times with ethnic cleansing?), and an ending that takes the easy way out, it's clear that the Sydney Pollack behind The Interpreter isn't the same Sydney Pollack behind Three Days of the Condor. Just because a man mellows with age doesn't mean his movies should. 1/2