Wednesday November 22, 2000
Copycat films are a fact of life in Hollywood, and once writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" grossed more than $600 million worldwide and earned six Oscar nominations, it was inevitable that someone would use all the same elements to produce an inferior version. "Unbreakable" is the knockoff we've been expecting, but what's surprising is that it's Shyamalan himself who's at the helm.
It's of course unreasonable and unfair to expect any film to have the special impact "The Sixth Sense" had on audiences, but Shyamalan (who wrote, directed, produced and still found time for a cameo as a drug dealer this time around) has recycled so many of the same elements that he seems to be inviting comparisons.
Back for an encore are Bruce Willis as the star and the city of Philadelphia as the setting. Returning as well are a small boy with three names in a key co-starring role (Spencer Treat Clark in for Haley Joel Osment), a theme dealing with the supernatural and an unexpected twist at the close.
Also the same--and it's a reason why this odd, creepy movie is a special source of frustration--is Shyamalan's gift for creating tension, uneasiness and a spooky atmosphere. It would be foolish to deny that "Unbreakable" has scenes that make you jump, but without anything resonant to apply that skill to, the film has no option except squandering its technique.
The real problem here is the story line, which starts out implausible and gets increasingly more difficult to take seriously as it unfolds. It's a comic-book idea in the worst sense, and Shyamalan's decision to start the film with on-screen statistics about the popularity of comics probably stems as much from a need to justify his preposterous plot as from the prominent place comics have in it.
"Unbreakable" begins with Willis in full "I Walked With a Zombie" mode as David Dunn, a phlegmatic security guard returning by train to his home in Philadelphia. As his inept attempts to chat up his attractive seatmate demonstrate, Dunn is a listless sad sack who hasn't felt good about himself in years. He loves his son, Joseph (Clark), but his relationship with his equally depressed wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), is just about over.
Into this uneventful life comes a terrible train wreck. More than 100 people die--everyone on that Philadelphia-bound train, in fact, with a single exception. David Dunn not only comes out alive, he emerges without so much as a scratch on him.
The notoriety of his survival leads directly to something left on his car windshield, an unsigned note asking if he's ever been sick. Intrigued, Dunn not only investigates the history of his own health but also tracks down the man who left the message, comic-art dealer Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson).
Price, as we see in flashbacks that alternate with Dunn's story, has been afflicted since birth with osteogensis imperfecta, a disease that makes his bones ridiculously easy to break. They've been shattered 54 times, leading to a hated childhood nickname of Mr. Glass. His mother (Charlayne Woodard) fosters an interest in comic books that turns into the obsession of Price's life and leads to a theory he has about why Dunn survived the wreck, a theory Dunn is not at all eager to embrace.
In addition to its plot problems, "Unbreakable" seems to have encouraged all its actors to emulate Willis' lugubrious pacing, meaning that usually vibrant actors such as Wright Penn and Jackson are not shown to their best advantage. As for young Clark, it takes nothing away from his performance to say that Osment is a tough act to follow.
Whether it means to or not, the shadow of "The Sixth Sense" hangs over "Unbreakable." If the former hadn't been as big a success as it was, this story might have been assigned to oblivion, or at least to rewrite. Although it's true that the earlier film had its share of gimmicks, it was able to use them in a surprisingly heartening, almost inspirational way, and that made all the difference.
Unbreakable, 2000. PG-13, for mature themes, some disturbing violent content and a sexual reference. A Blinding Edge Pictures production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director M. Night Shyamalan. Producers M. Night Shyamalan, Barry Mandel, Sam Mercer. Executive producers Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum. Screenplay M. Night Shyamalan. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Editor Dylan Tichenor. Costumes Joanna Johnston. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Larry Fulton. Art director Steve Arnold. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. Bruce Willis as David Dunn. Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price. Robin Wright Penn as Audrey Dunn. Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph Dunn. Charlayne Woodard as Elijah's mother.