Before there was The Avengers (2012), there was The Dark Knight (2008). Before there was The Dark Knight, there was Spider-Man 2 (2004). Before there was Spider-Man 2, there was Unbreakable.
Not to disenfranchise the numerous other superhero movies made before and between the films listed above, Unbreakable was released in 2000 (before Spider-Man (2002)), directed by M. Night Shyamalan. I do not claim to be a fan of Shyamalan, as I watched him butcher the film adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (quite possibly the greatest animated television show ever made) on the big screen. But I do confess that I found this film of his, originally marketed as a psychological thriller as opposed to a superhero origin story like Shyamalan wanted, to be strangely profound, if not exactly riveting.
The film stares Bruce Willis as David Dunn, a security guard at Temple University in Philadelphia who is the only survivor of a horrific train crash. He is approached by Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a man with type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease which makes his bones very fragile, almost like glass. He's been afflicted with his disease since birth, as played out in the beginning of the film after a long line of text concerning several statistics about comic books. Through flashbacks, we see that Elijah was raised on comic books, eventually leading him to open a comic book art gallery. He also developed a theory, that if he was at one end of a spectrum, weak and fragile, there must be someone else at the other end of the spectrum, strong and unbreakable. Enter David Dunn, who, along with his wife and son, struggle to understand his apparent superhumanity. As David tries to understand his powers, he also tries to reconcile himself to his wife and son, who he has of late had strained relationships with.
From the start, I'll give this movie coolness points for starring a pair of A-list actors in the leading roles. And what actors that were chosen! Willis and Jackson are marvelous in their parts, the former giving an excellent performance as a troubled father and husband, the latter a riveting portrayal of a man with a big idea but mysterious motives. The acting in the supporting roles (with a few exceptions- namely the ER doctor who treats David near the beginning of the film) is spot on as well, from David's son Joseph to Elijah's mother.
The characters themselves are done splendidly, with character development and motivations evident in everyone, with Elijah's arc in particular ending with a resounding conclusion. There is a good dynamic between the various characters, and the interactions are a treat to watch. The dynamic between David and Elijah (two Bible names, by the way) is especially well executed, as they go from acquaintances to friends to... well, I'm not going to spoil it for you.
The movie is also realistic in portrayal, David's superpowers being given a good deal of discussion and deconstruction. I was disappointed that his alleged invulnerability wasn't put on display, but more on that later. In addition, this movie also had some genuinely good insight into the mechanics of superhero stories and comic books. Elijah's dialogue about the subjects may sound hokey to some viewers, but it made me put The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell back on my reading list. Coming from the mouth of Samuel L. Jackson, it sounds all the better.
Of course, every film has its flaws, and I'm sorry to say that Unbreakable quite a few cracks in its foundation. In addition to some sub-par acting in minor roles, this movie is also as slow as molasses. The first half drags on at a snail's pace, and only in the final quarter do we actually see David doing any actual superheroic stuff. This is just one of the many issues (no pun intended) I have with this film. Another complaint of mine is the cinematography. Now, I'm no expert on film, but there are a lot of point-of-view shots in this movie, as well as a lot of lingering shots. There are minutes upon minutes of footage which are all one single continuous take, no cuts or anything. Combined with the slow pace, it's both annoying and boring.
I also take issue with the way this "superhero" story is structured. We don't actually get to see David kick any derriere in superhero fashion, aside from one poorly shot action sequence. Don't get me wrong, there is another great action sequence with Elijah involving a suspenseful chase, but that's balanced out by how a lot of the other attempts at suspense in the movie are subverted by the slow pace.
There's also David's son, who, after an altercation involving a gun, disappears two thirds of the way through the film, only to finally show up at near the end. Speaking of the end, Unbreakable's conclusion, quite frankly, sucks. It's mainly because of Shyamalan's penchant for the twist ending, but it's also because instead of shooting maybe three extra scenes, Shyamalan throws up some text explaining what happened to the characters immediately after the movie. This only succeeds in opening up several other cans of worms. It tells us what happened to Elijah Price, but what about David? Does he become a superhero? Does he fully repair his relationship with his wife and son? What about Elijah's mother? How does she deal with her son's fate? (Like I said, this is a spoiler-free review)
Finally, the twist ending I mentioned earlier is one of the three main things that handicap this film, the other two being the pace and the cinematography. Instead of doing this big reveal maybe one half, perhaps even two thirds of the way through the film and having the logical consequences break out from there, and have a straightforward good versus evil plot, the film just ends after a few lines of text and a small speech by Elijah. And I know it's a minor note (no pun intended), but the music, composed by John Newton Howard, the same guy who made the music for The Last Airbender (admittedly good), doesn't really capture the "superhero" feel that the movie's going for. It just doesn't do it for me.
In the end, Unbreakable got a lot right, but it also got plenty of stuff wrong. It had the potential to be a great movie, but I'm afraid it can only be considered by this reviewer to a good enough movie. Should you see it? Yes, you should. It truly is an imaginative and clever deconstruction of the superhero genre, and I'm sure any sequels would no doubt have been a good reconstruction. Despite it's flaws, it still has a lot going for it. So yeah, go rent it, and then see it. I only wish that I could get a chance to see the Blu-Ray version, which includes, so I've read, several deleted scenes and interesting featurettes. I don't have a Blue-Ray player, so a copy wouldn't do me much good. But I still would have liked to see it. This movie is also notable in that it is probably one of only four films in total (comment below if you can tell me different) where Samuel L. Jackson's character doesn't swear. The other three are the Star Wars prequels, which not nearly as bad as many have claimed.
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