(director/writer: M. Night Shyamalan; cinematographer: Eduardo Serra; editor: Dylan Tichenor; cast: Bruce Willis (David Dunn), Samuel L. Jackson (Elijah Price), Robin Wright Penn (Audrey Dunn), Spencer Treat Clark (Jeremy Dunn), Charlayne Woodard (Elijah’s mother), Eamonn Walker (Dr. Mathison), Leslie Stefanson (Kelly), Johnny Hiram Jamison (teenage Elijah); Runtime: 107; Touchstone Pictures; 2000)
“It is especially delightful for those who like puzzlers and think they can gather enough clues to take a stab at guessing the outcome.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), the young and successful director-writer of “Unbreakable,” once again continues his ongoing love affair with his home city of Philadelphia by again setting the film there. He also brings his love for comic book super-heroes into the plot as this commercial film explores the world of opposites, of a super-hero vs. an arch-villain, delving into those who see the world upside down, and of an ordinary man discovering who he is and finding what purpose he has in life. The payoff comes in a slick surprise ending, which has become the custom of the director and is what the audience expects.
Night has honed his skills from his previous films by showing an improvement in technique and filmmaking style, while continuing his penchant for making films with box-office pop. Though there is a certain disdainful emptiness in this film as there was in his others, but this film sustains itself with the keen performances by the understated one Bruce Willis gives and the punctiliously perverse one Samuel L. Jackson gives. The film is able to amble along at its leisurely pace building on character development and the unique relationship the two stars develop, until the mystery story takes hold in the last twenty minutes and puts the exclamation point on the far-fetched tale it was weaving.
This subdued action film is unlike other action-hero films, as the action is not the thing here. What counts the most, is trying to find out what secret is kept by the two stars (Willis and Jackson). It is especially delightful for those who like puzzlers and think they can gather enough clues to take a stab at guessing the outcome. Even though Night has matured as a director this surprise ending is not as engaging as the one he came up with in the blockbuster hit The Sixth Sense, which caught audiences completely off-guard. But this film is a more mature work and has fuller characterizations. So the former has arguably a better ending, but this one is a better realized overall film.
The basic plot is simple. David Dunn (Willis) is a security guard for the university stadium and is returning to Philly from New York, where he applied for another job. He seems nervous on the train, taking off his wedding band before a pretty woman (Stefanson) sits next to him. He strikes up a polite but flirtatious conversation with her, but he seems to make her edgy and she changes seats to get away from him. As his face changes expressions, we can sense something tragic is about to happen. That event is the train crash and when he wakes up in the hospital he learns that all of the passengers and crew aboard were killed and that he was miraculously the only survivor, and amazingly comes out of the crash without a scratch.
David is mysteriously contacted by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an art dealer in comic books who is an advent follower of the super-hero stories ever since his mother introduced him to comics so that she can lure him outside to play with the other kids. Because he was born with a genetic defect, he is crippled and suffers from having extremely fragile bones and was teased by kids for always falling and getting hurt. They hurtfully called him “Mr. Glass,” a name that still conceals the anger he has inside him for being born physically defective.
Elijah believes that David may be the ‘unbreakable’ person he is looking for– someone to give hope for this mediocre age we live in, as he believes the super-hero myth is as true as if it was history. This is asking a lot for an adult audience to swallow, but…that’s Hollywood! Elijah fantastically believes that David, who thinks of himself only as an ordinary man, might be unbreakable and possessed with the ability to see things others can’t– that he was born with the ability and need to protect others. And if he has a weakness it might be water, as even Superman had a weakness–kryptonite. His reasoning supposes — “If there is someone like me in the world, shouldn’t there be someone at the other end of the spectrum?” The only question Elijah asks of David to prove his point, is if he ever remembers getting sick. David thinks Elijah is daffy, but soon strange things begin to happen that make him slowly realize there might be something true about that.
David’s life is contrasted with Elijah’s.
David fell in love with his future wife Audrey (Wright) and even gave up his love for football because she hates any form of violence and decided he rather be with her than play football. He did this after he was in a car accident with her and really didn’t get hurt even repressing his memory to believe he did get hurt, using that supposed hurt as his excuse for giving up the sport so she wouldn’t feel guilty. He now lives with her and their young, impressionable son (Clark), though his relationship with her has become strained because there is a certain lack of fulfillment about his everyday life and there is an insecurity that has taken place in the love between them. David is someone who seems to be carrying around with him a sad burden, which is manifest in an empathy he has with others that is very intense. He is so bottled-up, that he is not able to adequately communicate with either his wife or his son.
Elijah is his opposite. He is a crippled black man who grew up in the slums with a nurturing mother and through comic books found a way to success by using his knowledge and arrogant personality to become an established comic book art gallery owner. His personality is as flamboyant as the costumes he dons, wearing attire which makes him look like he could be one of Liberace’s dandy acquaintances at a Halloween party. Elijah sees his role as the mentor who will awaken David to the potential he has and therefore make the comic book world he lives in seem more tangible and reaffirm that his sickly birth wasn’t a mistake.
The major stumbling block to this otherwise involving film, is the let down in the third act. The action seemed obligatory and not really germane to the story, as an anonymous psycho serial killer is introduced to prove that David has the super-powers of the comic book hero. This encounter of him stopping the violent psychopath killer never worked right as it seemed arbitrary, spoiling but not ruining the overall achievement of the film.
What this unconventional mainstream film did right, was to provide a modern type of super-hero for an audience that thrives on escapist films that can fill them with some hope that there’s a savior out there in the fight between good and evil (something Hollywood films could always be counted on to provide the public). It is a film that is confident enough of its ability to tell its story so that it doesn’t have to rely on special effects. And, perhaps, as an homage to Hitchcock or maybe it’s a case of egomania, Night once again appears in his own film. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I let you know he was in a throwaway part, as the one Bruce Willis hassled at the stadium because he suspected him of being a drug dealer.
REVIEWED ON 11/30/2000 GRADE: B