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Unbreakable – A Superhero Movie Review

It remains an ongoing argument among movie critics and movie lowers over when exactly M. Night Shyamalan went from being an interesting director and storyteller who created slow paced and well thought out movies with some quirks to simply making eccentric glacially paced movies dependent on trick endings that alienated audiences. Whether that mark is set at Signs or The Village or Lady in the Water, Unbreakable as M. Night Shyamalan’s follow up to The Sixth Sense is a strong and credible film.

There have been plenty of comic book movies made and comic book origin stories told but in Unbreakable, Shyamalan develops the story of an ordinary man realizing that he is extraordinary without any special effects or any of the gimmicks of the ordinary comic book story. Instead the slowly proceeds slowly, perhaps too slowly, as David Dunn played by Bruce Willis struggles with the reality that he something special. Yet the movie’s scenes with Bruce Willis remain mired in that same grey despondent zone as it was in The Sixth Sense. But where in The Sixth Sense, Willis’ lethargy had the energy of a young boy and his horrific visions as a counterpoint, in Unbreakable his only balance is Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price, a man suffering from Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a disease that leaves him with permanently brittle bones always on the verge of breaking at the slightest injury or collision.

Samuel L. Jackson’s performance in Unbreakable is the real surprise here portraying a character radically different from his usual aggressive gun toting tough guys. Elijah Price is cerebral and fragile, passionately driven forward on a lonely and bittersweet obsession and yet always teetering on the edge of a fall, both physical and moral. Unbreakable’s main problem is that Elijah Price is so much more interesting than David Dunn. Dunn’s essential ordinariness, from his troubled marriage to his job is as dull as the shades of blue and grey that serve as the movie’s tone and color cinematographic structure. Unbreakable only comes alive when Elijah Price is on screen and the movie’s genuinely shocking moment is geared all around him.

The key problem is that M. Night Shyamalan planned a more complex superhero movie that would encapsulate the birth of a hero and his struggle against his archenemy. But instead Shyamalan chose to shoot a movie focusing only on the birth of a hero. But the birthing process gives David Dunn very little to do except to wander around in a daze while very slowly learning to accept his abilities with painful slowness. David’s son Joseph brings occasional flashes of color to David Dunn’s learning process in the weight lifting scene in which Joseph tries to prove his father is a hero by piling more and more weights on him and the gun scene where Joseph tries to prove his father really is bulletproof.

Bruce Willis can and does play melancholy but once he sinks into melancholy, there simply is no energy left for anything else. Robin Penn Wright as Audrey, David’s wife, delivers an almost incredibly poor performance that worsens the movie’s tedium all the more. The addition of their marriage problems create a subplot that simply seem to have no real point. The situation is complicated by the flashbacks which almost exclusively focus on Elijah Price’s childhood rather than David Dunn’s, make David’s story seem cut off from the broader story of the film.

There is a reason that Unbreakable’s ending is the most dynamic moment in the film. It is because for the first time something significant has happened. Even the sole action scene in Unbreakable is almost unbelievably lethargic. As plausible as the fight between David Dunn and the janitor may be to real life fights, the scene is poorly shot and repetitive. It has all the excitement potential of waiting in line for popcorn. It seems that in Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan cannot even manage to bring excitement to a climactic fight scene in which the hero finally comes into his own. And if he cannot even make a climactic fight scene exciting, what hope is there for the rest of the movie?

The answer is little hope indeed. Unbreakable has a good deal of potential and some interesting ideas, rendering comic book narratives as myth and grounding the birth of a comic book hero in the everyday and the mundane, devoid of tights and capes and special effects. The ideas are intriguing but the delivery is far weaker. Often M. Night Shayamalan simply cannot understand that a story must take off. A main character cannot simply drift through scene after scene in a depressed fugue. That makes for a poor story and will not be tolerated by audiences who have not shown up to see a Bergman film. The essence of the comic book is action. Unbreakable did not have to show fight scenes every three minutes but it did need to possess some of the energy of a comic book if it intended to make a film about a comic book. And if Unbreakable were a comic book, it would probably be all in black and white with crude drawings and reside on the shelf where the rest of the pretentiously underground stuff goes.

Had the movie centered around Elijah Price, it would have been a fantastic and unforgettable film on a par with great classics like the best of Terry Gilliam. Had M. Night Shyamalan stuck with his original plan for a three act story that followed the hero from birth through struggle and confrontation, Unbreakable would have been forced to accelerate its glacial pace and fill its scenes with actual moments of meaning and action. Had the script been passed to a director like David Fincher, the ideas in the Unbreakable might have made the leap to the next step and emerged as a powerful movie. Instead Unbreakable is well meant but not really well done. Its main character is a blank cipher while its supporting actor is woefully underused. The potential was great but like some superheroes, some movies simply never take off and fly.

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