After making a splash with last year's surprise hit "The Sixth Sense", there has been much anticipation over what writer-director M. Night would come up with next. For many moviegoers, his sophomore effort "Unbreakable" will trigger a sense of déja vu. Bruce Willis, who starred in "The Sixth Sense", is in the lead role again, and in this new film, his character has a brush with unexplained, possibly supernatural, phenomena. And as he did in "The Sixth Sense", Shyamalan once again pulls the rug out from under the audience in the last few minutes of the film. Though it can be safely said that Shyamalan is not a 'one hit wonder', "Unbreakable" is at best a slightly above-average thriller. With noticeably fewer emotional hooks, tepid pacing, and a perfunctory twist at the end, "Unbreakable" is good, but not great, and pales in comparison to Shyamalan's earlier effort.
The precipitating event in the film is a train wreck that kills everyone on board except for one man, David Dunne (Willis), a security guard from Philadelphia. Even more surprising is that David emerges from the catastrophe without a single scratch on him. Not long after, he receives an anonymous note asking him if he remembers ever being sick in his life. David poses this question to his boss at work, as well as his estranged wife Megan (Robin Wright Penn of "Message in a Bottle"), and the answer is the same-- never. Intrigued by his findings, David traces the note to the proprietor of an art gallery dedicated to comic book art, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson of "Shaft"). In contrast to David, Elijah is 'breakable', afflicted with a genetic disorder that makes his bones extremely brittle, earning him the nickname "Mr. Glass".
Elijah has been looking for someone like David for a very long time, someone 'unbreakable', and he is convinced that David was put on the Earth to be a real-life superhero who would safeguard society from harm. After all, Elijah reasons, if there is someone as frail as he is, logic dictates that there must be someone at the other end of the spectrum. Of course, David initially brushes off these questionable conjectures, but with Elijah's help, he soon comes to understand his own unrealized potential, and develops the courage to fulfill his destiny...
Fans of "The Sixth Sense" will notice many similarities between that film and "Unbreakable". The story follows pretty much the same structure, in which a precipitating event forces a main character to come to grips with some supernatural ability. There's a relationship between Willis' character and a young boy, who helps him believe in himself (in this case, the boy is David's son). After they are able to overcome their initial fear, they find a sense of purpose when they use their unique gift to help others. And just when you start wondering what the whole point of the story was, a final plot-twist is thrown in to illuminate the significance of what has just transpired in the last two hours.
However, Shyamalan has also infused the archetypes of superhero comic book storytelling into this film. While the plot elements are certainly not as overt as "Batman" or "Superman", the script does make numerous references to the standard elements of superhero mythos in "Unbreakable"-- the mild-mannered individual who has superhuman abilities thrust upon them, a fatal Achilles' heel that could stop the hero cold, an archenemy whose moral compass has been bent out of shape by their misguided beliefs, and a moral imperative for the hero to use their abilities for the greater good. It certainly is no coincidence that Shyamalan's 'hero shots' have David dressed up in a hooded rainslick, evoking the image of a 'caped crusader'.
Despite the inclusion of these elements, "Unbreakable" is not as successful or compelling as "The Sixth Sense". Whereas much of the pathos of "The Sixth Sense" was built around the characters of Malcolm and Cole and the dynamics of their developing relationship, this type of emotional bond is conspicuously absent in the dealings between David and Elijah. Though these two characters are a study in contrasts, with the former having the ability but not the desire, and the latter having the desire but not the ability, their scenes together lack the requisite chemistry and credibility to engage the audience. With the muted nature of David, and Elijah's penchant for spouting comic-book-aphorisms, proceedings frequently grind to a halt. This is further exacerbated by Shyamalan's deliberate use of pedestrian pacing to build the overwhelmingly gloomy atmosphere of the film. In addition, the film's surprise ending feels somewhat 'tacked on' (though a number of clues are provided along the way, it really has no bearing on the growth of Willis' character), and it certainly lacks the emotional resonance of the last-minute revelation that made "The Sixth Sense" so compelling.
However, there are still some things to like. Despite the somewhat arbitrary ending, Shyamalan does a pretty good job of misdirecting the audience. About halfway through the film, I half-expected Shyamalan to take the "Dallas"-route with respect to the twist-ending, based on some seemingly significant bits of dialogue and the way the film was edited around the opening train wreck. Thankfully, Shyamalan didn't settle for such a cheap resolution. Also, moviegoers will notice that Shyamalan injects more humor into the story this time around, which is welcome given the otherwise dreary atmosphere and slow pacing. One memorable bit of unexpected humor comes during one of the more tense scenes in the film, an unexpected moment of potentially-explosive domestic violence.
The role of David seems to suit Willis, who has always had a 'working class' quality to him, whether it he is playing the unlikely hero John McClane in "Die Hard" or no-nonsense oil driller Harry Stamper in "Armageddon". Given that David is a quiet and nondescript man, Willis' low-key performance is appropriately restrained. Jackson is equally well-cast as Elijah, an intelligent man whose infinite depths of passion and strong beliefs often border on madness. Spencer Treat Clark, who recently appeared in "Gladiator", does a decent turn as David's son, who genuinely believes in Elijah's assertions about his father (though his passing resemblance to Haley Joel Osment is a bit suspicious). Finally, Penn is similarly adequate as David's wife, bringing some credibility to the role of a woman who finds herself in a purely functional marriage robbed of all its passion.
There is little doubt that moviegoers will be clamoring to see "Unbreakable" this weekend, based on the strength of Shyamalan's debut "The Sixth Sense". Unfortunately, "Unbreakable" does not entirely succeed, as it is saddled with tepid pacing, shallow intrigue, and a less-than-profound resolution. However, it still qualifies as a slightly above-average thriller. With an interesting take on the mythos of comic book superheroes, and the intriguing possibility that this film is merely the first part of a planned trilogy, "Unbreakable" is far from unbankable.