WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Moody security guard David Dunn is the sole survivor of a train crash. Not only does he survive, he is unscathed, bringing him to the attention of brittle-boned comic expert Elijah Price, known to some as Mr Glass. As David discovers the true extent of his abilities, he also discovers what he means to his family, and that every hero must have both a weakness and a rival.
Now here’s a great idea for a movie. Take the staples of comic-book fiction and play them absolutely straight: no CGI, no flying, no radioactive incidents or meteors from space, just an ordinary guy who happens to be impervious to damage. Unbreakable gives us that guy in the shape of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the unhappy husband and father who is involved in a horrendous train crash but walks away without a scratch. Although his mop-headed son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) is glad to see him, wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) is less delighted, and it soon becomes clear that their marriage is on very rocky grounds, David possibly leaving Philadelphia for New York at any moment.
By contrast, poor Elijah Price (a boy who eventually grows up to be Samuel L. Jackson) is so fragile, so prone to broken bones, that the kids call him Mr Glass. He develops an obsessive interest in both comic books and news stories that may reveal someone who is his exact opposite. The two men meet and Elijah encourages Dunn to look into his abilities. Audrey, in a sly piece of dramatic shorthand, just happens to be a therapist at Centre Elijah attends when he does himself major harm, and she reveals why her husband is so grim; they were both in a car accident years ago which ended his football career, not through injury (as she thinks), but though his own decision, to keep them together.
This is all a great set-up, but unfortunately this is as good as the film gets. There are some excellent moments of drama, such as when Elijah tumbles down the stairs into the subway, or when Joseph threatens to test his Dad’s invincibility by firing a gun at him (‘No shooting friends,’ says Audrey, sensibly). However, these are eventually outweighed by silly elements, such as Elijah’s contention that comic books are a link with ancient truths such as those the Egyptians produced (Jackson flanked by hieroglyphics, in case we are unsure what he means). Also, where Willis’s powers start off credibly (invincible and strong), we learn he has psychic powers too, giving him implausible CCTV-type insights into people’s lives when he gets near them. He is also lumbered with a daft ‘Security’ cape and the heroics he gets to perform are disappointingly limited. As for his weakness – Water?! Curses to that poorly-covered swimming pool.
Instead of being a full-time hero, Unbreakable instead follows Dunn’s emotional journey as he seeks a purpose in life. And sadly, the domestic stuff is plain boring. Willis is a blank, Penn underwritten, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with Clark as the son, there’s not the emotional investment in the child that you feel for Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Talking of which, M Night Shyamalan’s star has fallen considerably since this film, made on the crest of The Sixth Sense’s wave; and it’s not hard to see why, the would be auteur (he writes, produces and directs here, in addition to having a pointless cameo) producing a film that looks nice but is slow, leaden and much taken with its own importance (eg. the text informing us what happened after the action has finished).
There is also the inevitable sense of reprise. ‘This one has a surprise ending,’ says Elijah’s mother earlier in Unbreakable. All very clever, but that surprise ending is really a bit hard to swallow. For one, is it that much of a surprise? After all, every hero has to have a villain, and how does the villain find the hero? For another, the mechanics of it don’t add up at all. Looking – Spoilers! – for his own place in the world, Elijah causes disasters around the globe to flush out his opposite: Elijah, on his own, unable to negotiate a flight of stairs without damaging himself, a terrorist beyond the reach of the authorities? Single-handedly causing catastrophe to find one man among 6 billion? Yeaahh…
Go with it and the film just about passes muster. But Unbreakable is a disappointment, especially once you’ve seen it once, and does not match the surprise, energy, or the acting of The Sixth Sense. You may just be prepared to give the director the benefit of the doubt here. Hollywood has since ceased to be so kind.