The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
asks us to believe
in superheroes

November 30, 2000
By Franklin Harris

How did this happen? I was on a roll -- two horrible movies in a row, and two scathing, blistering movie reviews in a row. And just as I was ready to rip another film to shreds, along comes a powerful, thought-provoking movie like "Unbreakable" that ruins everything.

M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan
It's inevitable that people will compare "Unbreakable" to screenwriter/director M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 surprise hit, "The Sixth Sense." Both are supernatural thrillers. Both are filmed with Shyamalan's slow, deliberate pace, which revels in even the smallest visual hints and details. And both star Bruce Willis, who delivers uncharacteristically understated performances.

On the surface, the two films appear similar, but they're not. And while "Unbreakable" may not be as emotionally satisfying as "The Sixth Sense," it is far more ambitious. If it is less than perfect, it isn't from a lack of effort.

Willis plays David Dunn, a proverbial everyman who works as security guard for the local college football team. Dunn's life is a mess. He's grown apart from his wife, played by Robin Wright Penn, and is distant to his son (Spencer Treat Clark). And as we learn, he wakes up every morning afraid that his life has taken a wrong turn.

Then one day a train Dunn is riding derails, killing everyone in the passenger car except Dunn, who walks away without a scratch.

This amazing twist of fate brings Dunn to the attention of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a dealer in vintage comic-book artwork, who develops an equally amazing theory about Dunn.

Price suffers from a genetic defect that makes his bones unusually brittle. In his lifetime he's broken nearly every bone in his body multiple times. In grade school, the other children teasingly nicknamed him "Mr. Glass," and he spent much of his childhood in hospital beds, with only his doting mother and stacks of comics to keep him company.

Price believes that he exists on one end of a spectrum of possibilities. So, if it's possible for him to exist at one end, then it's possible for someone who is unbreakable to exist on the other.

And Dunn might be that someone.

Shyamalan treads a fine line, and not always successfully. The best scene in the movie takes place between Dunn and his son, as they first discover that Price may not be crazy after all. But a scene later in the film, in which the son tries to prove once and for all that his father is a superhero, falls apart. The audience can only laugh at it because it's impossible to take it seriously.

But, ultimately, Shyamalan delivers an engrossing tale about humanity's need to believe in heroes and society's cynical refusal to allow heroes to exist. We find the feet of clay in all of them and deprive ourselves of the hope and inspiration they can offer.

Bruce Willis, left, and Samuel L. Jackson talk about comic books and finding one's place in the world in ''Unbreakable.''
Courtesy Photo Copyright Touchstone Pictures
Bruce Willis, left, and Samuel L. Jackson talk about comic books and finding one's place in the world in "Unbreakable."
That's what I'm talking about when I say "Unbreakable" is more ambitious than "The Sixth Sense." Shyamalan dares to pick at the crusty scab of our cynicism, which is quite a task for any 30-year-old writer/director, however talented, to undertake.

But "Unbreakable" isn't just about big issues. It's also about individuals finding their places in the world.

But I better not say anything more. I don't want to give away the ending.

Like "The Sixth Sense" before it, "Unbreakable" has a twist ending. And while it may seem absurd at first, the clues are all there, if you know where to look.

Catching them is easier if you've read a lot of comic books, because "Unbreakable" is ultimately a comic-book movie. But unlike even the best comic-book films, such as "X-Men" and 1978's "Superman," "Unbreakable" is a comic-book movie in which everyone knows the rules of comics.

And those rules can't be broken.

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