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Unbreakable   C+

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 Jeremiah Kipp

The trailer was absolutely terrific. Bald, stoic Bruce Willis sits in the doctor's office taking in the knowledge that he was the only survivor of a train wreck. What's more, he didn't break a single bone in his body. He walked away without a single scratch. He embraces his family and returns home to a mundane life, but Samuel L. Jackson appears in a bizarre fright wig claiming to know the answer to this riddle. The end.

Substantially, we've only seen the first 20 minutes of Unbreakable. It was enough to glean that this premise would comfortably fit within Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. Different enough from The Sixth Sense to stand on its own merits, director M. Night Shyamalan continues in the same vein of the otherworldly and supernatural existing within the confines of a realistic, ordinary universe.

The trick, of course, is to make the illogical or extraordinary seem plausible. Shyamalan pulled it off once before. Would lightning strike twice?

The answers is both yes and no. If you're planning on checking out Unbreakable based on the commercials or the opening paragraphs of this review, you might be better off not reading any further. M. Night Shyamalan's films depend on not having their surprises given away, so if you don't want to know the tenuous connection between David Dunn (Willis) and Elijah Price (Jackson), do yourself a favor and read no further.

As you might have guessed, David Dunn is unbreakable. Elijah, a comic book specialist and fan-boy, read about the accident and believes David to be a new breed of hero. This crackpot theory involves David having bones and flesh of steel, a natural instinct for heroism and the ability to tell whether a stranger is good or evil merely by physical contact. The story arc of Unbreakable is Elijah's attempt to convince David that he is, indeed, superhuman.

The paradox is that David exists in an ordinary, drab, even depressing world. His wife (Robin Wright Penn) sleeps in a separate bed and doesn't seem to care for him anymore. His childhood dream of being a football player was dashed in a car accident years ago. He never smiles, but drifts from blue-collar home to rigorous security job in a melancholy daze. Some hero this guy's gonna be -- the first time we see him, he's trying to pick up a chick he met on the train.

In fact, as played by Bruce Willis the main character is so entirely lacking in charisma that it's difficult to get behind him. At least within The Sixth Sense we had that early scene of the doctor and his wife enjoying each other. We had the opportunity to see what our hero had lost and was attempting to rediscover. David never has that chance. He's a passive character most of the time.

On the flip side of that coin, Samuel L. Jackson sinks his teeth into a fat leg of ham as Elijah, launching into maniacal speeches about the rules of super powers, super weaknesses, acts of heroism and the different types of villains.

Oh -- and Elijah's the opposite of David in that his bones are incredibly fragile. The schoolyard bullies called him Mister Glass. It's a bit too mannered for my tastes, since the world of Unbreakable is more or less naturalistic, but Jackson is clearly having fun with it.

The concept is potentially interesting -- a superhero who operates not in some gauche Gotham City or colorful Metropolis, but the ordinary and familiar mean streets of Philadelphia. He's not wealthy, doesn't have an underground hideaway and never puts on a colorful spandex costume. This is the stuff of Alan Moore's Watchmen, a lean and hungry world painted in ambivalent grays.

Shyamalan is a capable filmmaker, making full use of visual metaphors (the world upside down; the use of real locations -- a swirling playground drawing, for example -- as a comic book panel). He makes a bold choice to create a slow paced, contemplative superhero movie, considering what Joel Schumacher has done to the Batman series.

Will folks who don't obsess over comic books really care about Samuel L. Jackson's mentoring? Even if they do, will they want to deal with a fella as introverted as David Dunn? Unbreakable feels like a silver ring buried in a mound of cold, grey slush. It's capable work, even potentially intriguing, but it's difficult to recommend.

POSTSCRIPT: Watch for M. Night Shyamalan's cameo as a sneaky looking fella at the stadium. Also, take note that Samuel L. Jackson's outfits are shiny blacks and purples, not unlike comic book characters such as Dr. Octopus, the Lizard, the Green Goblin and the Joker. Don't ask me to explain the zany hair.

Review published 12.08.2000.

For another opinion, read Rob Vaux's review.

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