Touchstone Pictures // 2000 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // May 1st, 2002
Are you unbreakable?
M. Night Shyamalan's much-anticipated follow-up to The Sixth Sense again finds Bruce Willis playing a man trying to make sense of the bizarre circumstances in which he finds himself. Where The Sixth Sense used the device of a ghost story, Unbreakable dallies with the concept of comic-book superheroes, but in a dramatically different (which is not necessarily to say "better") way than any comics-based film before it. And, as in his previous film, Shyamalan stacks the deck so he can whip back the curtain and shock the Wizard with a surprise (maybe) ending. Does lightning strike twice for the Philadelphia Kid?
David "don't-call-me-Addison" Dunn (Bruce Willis), like Peter Parker before the arachnid attack, is a guy "who could be you," leading a nebbishy existence as a security guard with a dissolving marriage and no future. Once a collegiate football superstar destined for gridiron greatness until an auto accident ended his athletic career, David now slogs through his dull gray day-to-day, a real nowhere man living in a nowhere land. Then one fateful evening, as he returns home from a job interview in New York, David's commuter train derails, killing everyone on board except -- hey, quit reading ahead -- David, a "sole survivor" who is "miraculously unharmed."
In the wake of his incredible turn of good fortune, David is puzzled by a note left on the windshield of his car during a memorial for the trainwreck victims -- it reads simply: "How many days of your life have you been sick?" David, as it happens, doesn't remember, nor does his wife (Robin Wright Penn, the one-time Princess Bride looking almost as unglamourous as Carol Kane's wizened crone in that classic film). The man who inscribed the card, a whacked-out comic art dealer named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson with hair time-warped from the heyday of the American Basketball Association and wardrobe -- cane included -- on loan from Willy Wonka), doesn't think David ever has been sick, and indeed may be impervious to illness or injury, the aforementioned car crash notwithstanding. Elijah himself is afflicted with a rare genetic disorder (osteogenesis imperfecta) that leaves his bones as brittle as glass. He is obsessed with the idea that for every person as weak and frail as himself, there must be another who is -- the score swells -- "unbreakable." (The film opens with Elijah's birth -- his arms and legs shattered in the exit process -- and flashes back at a later point to his youth, when his mother -- touchingly portrayed by Charlayne Woodard until she shows up in some seriously bad old-age drag late in the film -- introduces Elijah to comics as a device to help him overcome his well-founded fear of injury.)
The evidence begins to mount that Elijah may be right about David, who exhibits previously untapped reserves of physical strength and has eerie flashes of insight about people with whom he comes into contact. Dunn's son (Spencer Treat Clark, a young actor so strikingly reminiscent of Haley Joel Osment I kept waiting for him to see dead people) is convinced, and decides to test Elijah's theory by pulling a revolver on his own man. David, though, recalling a childhood near-drowning experience, remains reluctant to believe he's the incarnation of Clark Kent. The "is-he-or-isn't-he-superhuman" debate between David, his son, and the mysterious Elijah Price, drives the film to its denouement.
I may be out on a promontory by my lonesome here, but I wasn't all that wowed by The Sixth Sense. A nifty exercise in atmosphere and style, to be sure, but because I -- unlike millions of ticket-buying Americans, apparently -- had seen Carnival of Souls way back when, I glommed onto the big finale by the end of the opening scene. [If you haven't seen The Sixth Sense yet, but have seen Carnival of Souls, then (a) I'm sorry to blow the surprise for you and (b) you owe me your eternal gratitude for giving you back two hours of your life you might have eventually wasted on The Sixth Sense. Then again, since almost nobody these days has seen Carnival of Souls, I'm guessing I'm apologizing to the air here.] Shyamalan didn't catch me napping with Unbreakable, either, because I was collecting Marvel Comics before M. Night was born, and knew there was only one place this story could wind up. But I enjoyed it considerably more than his other movie, at least until the final scene.
Shyamalan assumes a couple of huge risks with Unbreakable. First, he chances alienating people who've heard that the film is about a comic-book-style hero and are expecting another installment in the Batman franchise, or an action spectacular on the order of X-Men. Unbreakable is diametrically opposite of those pictures -- a quiet, reflective, low-energy film similar in feel to the director's earlier hit. Second, Shyamalan gambles that people who don't give a rip about comics and would leap across the street in a single bound to avoid a movie about them will somehow tumble to the fact that even though he uses the thesis of comics to develop his characters and story, the film isn't remotely comic-booky. Cineastes who enjoy character-driven drama might enjoy Unbreakable. The bottom line is that Shyamalan made a film that won't appeal to the people who think it's about what it isn't about, and that won't draw the people who would probably like what it really is about. It's a risk worth taking, but I wouldn't have the first clue how to market it. Apparently, the studio didn't either, seeing that Unbreakable was something of a disappointment at the box office.
Willis does yet another turn on his "other" character. By "other" I mean the one who isn't David Addison/John McClane/Hudson Hawk/Korben Dallas, the shoot-from-the-lip wiseacre who laughs in the face of danger. Instead, David Dunn is another iteration of the character Willis assayed in such films as Last Man Standing and, yes, The Sixth Sense: the grim, laconic loner with melancholy eyes. (I haven't seen much evidence yet that Willis has an on-screen character who isn't a take on one of these two or an amalgam of both. Doesn't make him a bad actor -- in fact, I invariably enjoy his work -- but like, say, Kevin Costner, he has a very specific range.) Jackson's character, by contrast, is a major freakfest, and there were moments when I thought Samuel L. was creeping precariously close to the edge of parody. Both characterizations make sense in the context of Shyamalan's vision, but Elijah is so weird and David so subdued that the connection between them never quite rings authentic (kind of like the connection between Willis' McClane and Jackson's Zeus Carver in Die Hard With A Vengeance). I was, though, impressed by the nuance Robin Wright Penn brought to her character, especially in the sequence where she and David go on a "date" to rekindle their dying relationship. How many actresses today will allow themselves to be photographed looking as haggard and world-weary as Wright Penn does here? Yet her essential underlying strength and beauty shine through.
I found Unbreakable to be hugely disappointing when I saw it in the theater -- dull, slow, and disaffecting. Having watched it a few times through on DVD, I've warmed to it somewhat, and find it a more mature and emotionally developed work than The Sixth Sense. But I've gotta nail Shyamalan on two things.
First: the "trick" ending bites. It bites big time. It masticates like the rats in Willard. I've given up trying to suss out what M. Night was thinking when he said, "Let's end it like THIS!" other than he'd been tapping into the stash of his dope dealer cameo character from the film. Even though I intuited early on how the resolution would turn out, the execution is botched so wretchedly that any good karma the movie builds up in the first 100 minutes is flushed down the commode of artistic license in the final seven.
Second: I don't believe M. Night "gets" what superhero comics are about AT ALL, any more than the no-talent hacks responsible for Batman (Seems Like It Goes On) Forever and Batman and Robin (You Blind), "got it." Unbreakable drains the concept of the comics medium of nearly all its color, fire and life. The first Christopher Reeve Superman film got it. Tim Burton's two Batman films got it -- I'm not a fan of Burton's approach particularly, but he clearly understood what his central character was about. From what I've seen of the soon-to-be-released Spider-Man, Sam Raimi apparently gets it. I understand that cinema is cinema and comics are comics and the two media are worlds apart, but when I see cinema that draws its thematic foundation from comics, I'd like to think the director had actually read a few. According to interviews, M. Night is an avid comics reader. You couldn't tell by this film. Unbreakable feels like a movie made by someone who studied a doctoral dissertation about comics by some Ivy League sociology professor, not by an adult who as a child often trembled with wide-eyed excitement at the glorious artwork of Kirby, Ditko, and John Romita Sr., or the hyperbolic words of Stan Lee and Roy Thomas.
The Disney conglomerate, unrelentingly bipolar about the DVD medium, used the release of Unbreakable to launch their VISTA Series packaging. According to the notes, VISTA stands for "Vision, Imagination, Style, Theme, Artistry." Whatever. The anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film itself on Disc One of the two-disc set is fine but unremarkable. Shyamalan and cinematographer Eduardo Serra use a muted color palette throughout, and much of the action is shot at night or in diffuse light, so there's not much sparkle to show off. A hint of graininess and shimmer crop up here and there in the transfer, and there's some serious edge enhancement going on in spots, especially in the relative handful of brighter scenes. (Memo to Disney: hire some people that actually like DVD and know what they're doing with it. If you're going to be in it, be in it to win it.) Most undiscriminating eyes won't notice anything untoward. The soundtrack is available in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. I only listened to the former, and as with the video found it acceptable but nothing to shout about. There's sufficient separation in the discrete channels when it's called for by the action, but to paraphrase Travolta's angel in Michael, this ain't that kind of movie. I don't usually pay much attention to the score -- which makes sense, because if you're noticing the score the film probably reeks -- but James Newton Howard's music is appropriately understated and plays nicely here.
The much-touted VISTA extras (mostly on Disc Two) are an interesting mix, but disappointing given the hype. Just call it a Special Edition and be done with it, for crying out loud! A 15-minute documentary piece entitled "Behind the Scenes" is pretty much standard-issue publicity kit fare. Far more compelling for us comics aficionados is "Comic Books and Superheroes," a 20-minute collection of interview clips featuring a number of legendary comics creators, including Will Eisner (The Spirit), Denny O'Neil (Green Lantern/Green Arrow), Alan Moore (Watchmen), Frank Miller (Daredevil), and others. Samuel L. Jackson, evidently something of a comics maven himself, also appears. This item alone, for me, was worth the price of the set.
Shyamalan introduces a series of seven scenes deleted from the eventual release. His comments are animated and generally interesting, and the scenes, to Disney's credit, are completely finished pieces of film, not stuff that looks like someone scraped it off the bottom of the editor's wastebasket. In addition, one key scene that appears in the movie is presented in a multi-angle format, allowing the viewer to compare the original storyboards to the completed camera shots. It's an educational view of the way the transition occurs from the director's internal visualization of a scene to final film. Both discs also contain effectively designed interactive menus, complete with sound -- if you view a lot of DVDs you see quite a bit of this kind of thing, but these menus rank with some of the better ones I've encountered.
As on The Sixth Sense DVD, Shyamalan includes a short home video he made when he was a kid. Night: stop it. Stop it right now. We don't want to endure your cinematic fingerpainting every time you release a movie. We get it, okay -- you grew up to be a talented filmmaker. I grew up to be a writer, but you don't see me posting stuff on the Web I wrote when I was in junior high. You remind me of people who send out those annoying letters every Christmas that detail every time a family member scratched, sneezed, or belched during the previous twelve months. Get over yourself.
Oh yeah: the "two collectible Alex Ross illustrations" are a double-sided lithographed postcard by the guy who did "Marvels" and "Kingdom Come" (comics fans will know the name). Big deal.
No commentary track. I guess M. Night figures we'd rather bask in his glory through his face-to-face introductory snippets than just listen to him babble for two hours without actually having to stare at him. But didn't anyone else who helped create this pic want to chat about it? Bruce? Sam? Anybody? And I'd bet dollars against Krispy Kremes that I once saw a trailer for Unbreakable...but I sure didn't see it on either of these discs.
A well-made -- if not well-conceived, in my opinion -- film that either resonates with you or doesn't. I found it growing on me after repeated viewings, but not enough to recommend it by itself. But the sensitive performances by Willis, Jackson, Wright Penn, Woodard, and young Spencer Treat Clark are worth seeing, and for the true fan of sequential storytelling the "Comic Books and Superheroes" short is keeper material. If you don't despise its ending as much as I do, Unbreakable might just fill a rainy afternoon. Just don't come expecting to believe a man can fly.
The Mouse House is found guilty of monumental hubris over the whole "VISTA Series" debacle. M. Night Shyamalan is found guilty of not knowing what to do with the last ten pages of his script. The exceptional cast and crew are free to go. We're adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2002 Michael Rankins; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes with Director's Introductions
* Documentary: "Behind the Scenes"
* Documentary: "Comic Books and Superheroes"
* Multi-Angle Feature
* Excerpt from Director's Childhood Film Project
* Collectible Illustrations
* Periodic Table of Comic Books