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Unbreakable   B-

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard.

Review by Rob Vaux

With the runaway success of The Sixth Sense, director M. Night Shyamalan quickly found himself in rarified air, compared to the likes of Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Frank Darabont. It only stands to reason that his follow-up effort, Unbreakable, would generate equally huge amounts of anticipation and skepticism. The Sixth Sense showed us what Shyamalan had up his sleeve. Would the trick be as good now that we know what to expect? Naturally, it isn't.

Unbreakable revels in the same sort of twisting craftsmanship that The Sixth Sense did, but because we go into the film prepared for it, the surprises never come off with quite the same artfulness. Shyamalan has the remarkable ability to hold the audience in the palm of his hand without appearing to exert any effort at all, using extended shots, quiet music and subdued action to create an almost unbearable emotional atmosphere. Add to this his screenwriting skills, which create stories of exquisite complexity that unfold with jeweled precision. Unfortunately, as Unbreakable demonstrates, these considerable talents form a two-edged sword. You can't help but admire the craftsmanship, but you also wonder whether there's anything beyond it. In spite of that, the film manages to rise above most normal holiday fare, and though it stumbles more often than it should, it also proves that its director is more than just a flash in the pan.

The tale here concerns the notion of comic book superheroes, and the way such figures could emerge in so-called real life. After surviving a massive train wreck unscathed, sad-eyed security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) wants nothing more than to go back to his life. But a driven comic-book dealer named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) has other ideas. Afflicted with brittle bones that have left him a near-cripple, Price believes that Dunn possesses special gifts which allowed him to escape the crash unharmed while every other passenger -- every single one -- died horribly. The intensity of those beliefs spooks Dunn and his barely-cohesive family, but as time goes on, he begins to wonder if they might not be true... and what he might be capable of if they were.

Shyamalan clearly wants to explore his central theme to the fullest, and Unbreakable spends a lot of time meditating on the emotional and psychological complexities of the comic book paradigm. His efforts to invest the material with real resonance pay off -- to a point. The characters' conflicted emotions bring a lot depth to the story, and both Jackson and Willis bring quiet power to their respective roles. The plot weaves its way through this material with considerable dexterity, and the requisite whiplash twists never fail to raise an eyebrow. More than a few moments in this film show true greatness, evoking a delightful shiver in the audience that confirms the talent on display.

At the same time, however, it never really attains the depth that Shyamalan aims for. Unbreakable spends so much time focusing on its intricate clockwork of plot and character, that it fails to move beyond it, despite the director's obvious desire. Convenient coincidences abound in the story, as well as an arbitrary sheen to some of Dunn's "abilities" that serve no purpose outside of plot mechanics. Shyamlaan's relentless manipulation keeps the audience on its toes, but just as often prevents it from dwelling on any of the deeper themes. In the end, craft triumphs over art, and we're forced to settle for an engaging brain exercise rather than the masterpiece that Unbreakable plainly wants to be.

Shyamalan's exquisite workmanship places Unbreakable on a level above what most films can hope to achieve, but it becomes so infatuated with its own cleverness that it never achieves its real potential. As an intellectual exercise, it's more than diverting -- this particular toy unwinds well enough to confirm the director's talent -- but whiplash plot twists can only take you so far without something meatier underneath. In the end, Unbreakable leaves you wondering how much longer this trick will work... and whether its creator has anything else in his bag.

Review published 12.08.2000.

For another opinion, read Jeremiah Kipp's review.

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