Going For Broke

Shyamalan Tries His Recipe For Success Once More in 'Unbreakable.'

I MUST SAY, I really liked Unbreakable, but that alone is not a reason to give it a good review; like most people, I like a lot of crappy movies. For example, I like any film that has either Norman Fell, Vic Tayback, or murderous robots from outer space who are running for president. So I had to think a bit before I decided that Unbreakable was, indeed, a good film.

In fact, I was a bit surprised at how good it was, since writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's last movie, the incredibly overrated Sixth Sense, was decidedly mediocre. I realize every critic drooled over it, but I think that that had more to do with the fact that its geeky-cool shock/surprise ending was simultaneously so tricky and so super-easy to get that every yobbo could think he was a genius for understanding it.

Unbreakable borrows a lot from Sixth Sense. Again, Shyamalan picks Bruce Willis as his star. Again, Willis plays a man who is experiencing trouble in his marriage. Again, he learns to reconnect with people after a near-death experience, and again his initial reconnection to the world comes in his friendship with a young boy who just happens to be painfully cute.

Shyamalan also reprises a lot of his favorite shots. He loves to frame people in the middle of the screen between two obstructions. In fact, among the first four scenes, one is shot through the gap between two chairs on a train, another through the gap between two curtains in a hospital emergency room, and a third through a doorway. This pretty quickly comes off as more of a trick than a storytelling technique.

What Shyamalan does do differently in this film, though, is start with some action. In Sixth Sense it took almost an hour for anything really striking to occur. Unbreakable begins with a devastating train wreck. From there, a mystery begins to unfold rather quickly, and the story winds up being a good bit more successful than Sixth Sense's.

This is partly achieved by a surprisingly affecting performance by Willis as security guard David Dunne. Dunne is the sole survivor of a train wreck, after which he's contacted by art dealer Elijah Prince (Samuel L. Jackson).

Prince is afflicted with a brittle bone disorder, and has been a big comic book fan since his early youth, which he spent in hospitals and sickrooms. He has theorized that if someone as weak and sickly as himself exists, then there must be someone at the opposite end of the spectrum, a superbeing who will have a natural propensity to do good and to protect people. And, you know, maybe wear a really cool cape or something.

Thus, Elijah tries to convince Dunne that the only thing that could have saved him from the train wreck would be superpowers. While this seems entirely logical to anyone who's read the complete run of Green Lantern and Marvel Team-Up Featuring Spiderman, Dunne, surprisingly, finds the idea a bit ridiculous. However, in looking at his life history he starts to see that it might, possibly, be true.

The film then becomes something of a double mystery: Is Dunne possessed of superhuman powers, and how does Elijah Prince figure into this? Like Sixth Sense, Unbreakable features a surprise ending, though unlike Sixth Sense, Unbreakable would still be a decent film without the O. Henry stuff.

Still, I can't imagine that Unbreakable will be as popular as its predecessor. It isn't that you can't make a lot of money with a superhero film, it's just that people expect certain things of the superhero genre, like overdeveloped women in spandex and super-intelligent gorillas. These aren't bad things (they may even be the best things in life), but Shyamalan eschews them, instead focusing on the emotional life of a man who may be super-powered. Thus, adults who would appreciate the depth of the story about Dunne's relationship with his son might be turned off by the comic-book elements of the script, and children would probably find all the soul-searching to be a bit dull. (By the way, if you're thinking of bringing children to see this, don't: It's got some extremely unsettling sequences that are definitely not for those under 12).

Unbreakable isn't completely successful. Shyamalan's love of moody lighting and arty visual compositions sometimes goes overboard, and while he generally handles the story of Dunne's developing closeness to his son pretty well, he occasionally dabbles in bathos. I think what makes Unbreakable so interesting, though, is that it's the first movie about superheroes that's actually for adults. While comic books have been exploring the emotional lives and social ramifications of the cape-and-cowl crowd for about 15 years now, Hollywood has pretty much stayed with the old formula for the costumed hero movie, downplaying relationships in favor of villainous talking robot dogs and women with super-powered wonderbras.

Which is perhaps why film critics and audiences are a lot more forgiving of the supernatural (as in Sixth Sense) than they are of superpowers. That's too bad, because superpowers and the supernatural are both ridiculous, but then so are movies, and it's really just a question of how well a film incorporates the surreal into the real that determines its quality.

Unbreakable is playing at Foothills (742-6174), Century Gateway(792-9000), Century Park (620-0750), Century El Con (202-3343) and DeAnza Drive-In (745-2240).

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