Unbreakable marks the second pairing of M Knight Shyamalan and Bruce Willis. Willis plays David Dunn, a seemingly ordinary security guard who walks away from a train derailment that kills all the other passengers, without a scratch on him. He’s then approached by Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson) a comic book nut with a rare brittle bone disease that means he spends most of his time trying not to fall down and the rest of it dealing with multiple breaks and fractures. Elijah believes that David is at the other end of the scale to him with his fragile bones – in short, a superhero, put on this earth to protect the rest of us.
It’s a fairly flimsy premise, you’ll probably agree. There are no radioactive spiders, nuclear meltdowns or ice palaces. After some more circumstantial evidence (David having not had a day off sick in four years – big whoop), Elijah is convinced that he’s right and so is everyone else. But if you can get past the unconvincing basis under Unbreakable, then you’re in for a pretty enjoyable ride.
It’s hard to pigeonhole the film in one genre. After the success of The Sixth Sense, it was marketed as a psychological thriller, but it’s that really does it a bit of a disservice. It’s also a superhero film, a comic book story and also a film about human relationships. I think Quentin Tarantino got there before me and summed it up best when he said: ‘What if Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?’
Building on The Sixth Sense, it’s another great performance from Bruce who again underplays it beautifully. His David Dunn (note use of alliteration – see also Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, etc) gives off a real sense of sadness about his crumbling relationships with his wife (Robin Wright-not-Penn-anymore) and son. Dunn’s a man who’s always known that there was something missing in his life. And lucky him, he finds it and it’s superpowers. (For me, it’s a Bugatti Veyron. Not found it yet.) Dunn’s no paragon of virtue – when we first meet him on the train he’s hiding his wedding ring when he finds himself sitting next to a pretty girl (he’s unceremoniously shot down by the lady in question). But redemption is nigh, and his journey from humble security guard to full blown superhero is done so subtly that you almost don’t realise what’s going on. All of which makes it all the more convincing and moving. I defy you not to be a little bit choked up when his son (Spencer Treat Clark) realises that his dad is a bona fide hero.
Samuel L’s on fine form (although he looks weird without any facial hair) and playing against type as the beleaguered Elijah who you feel horribly sorry for right up until the obligatory Shyamalan twist. Yes, he’s a mentalist who’s killed god knows how many people; the self-confessed villain of the piece, perpetrating acts of horrific terrorism all to find one man. But he thinks he’s doing it for the right reasons. It’s hard to really hate him.
And now… geek out! In true comic book hero style, David is always in green, his superhero colour. A lot of his furniture’s green, his sheets, yada yada. And Elijah, because he’s evil, wears a lot of purple. And has a purple house and a purple… well, you get the picture. In the standout scene towards the end where David uses his powers to see all the wrongdoings of the people in a train station (people in Philadelphia sure are mean to each other), the evildoers are all in red or orange so they stand out from the muted backgrounds. Okay, geekery over.
The film as a whole has more visual flair than The Sixth Sense and Shyalaman’s use of framing devices like doors and reflections in several shots to mimic comic book style further moves it away from its predecessor. The scene mentioned above is amazing and it totally makes the film – it’s almost completely self-contained with its own music and striking visual style. It really picks up the pace in what could otherwise have been a bit of a slow film.
It’s a shame then that after all that, the ending feels like an anti-climax. Yes, Elijah’s a big old terrorist (and don’t get me started on the logistics of a seriously ill man perpetrating at least three mahoosive terrorist incidents all on his own) and it feels like we’ve been set up for a big good-versus-evil battle. Then just as we get there… oh, it’s the end. All we’re left with is some words about Elijah being chucked in the looney bin (in true supervillain style I guess). A sequel’s been mooted since Unbreakable was released so perhaps that’s where Shyalaman was going with this (although now he’s gone all rubbish I kinda hope he leaves it alone).
Thankfully it doesn’t ruin what’s gone before it. Although the ending may leave you with a slightly sour taste in your mouth, Unbreakable’s definitely worth a watch for all that comes before it.