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Unbreakable 2000 ****

‘I hear there’s a surprise ending,’ intones a character in M Night Shyamalan’s significant blockbuster; viewing this again in 2020, the point is probably moot, since Unbreakable telegraphs its twist from the opening scene. It’s hard to imagine that world-building seemed like such a novelty back in 2000, or that keying into comic-book mythology might feel so fresh, but twenty years ago is a long time ago by now.

Of course, Unbreakable is now seen as the start of a trilogy, picked up in Split and Glass to diminishing returns, but it’s worth slipping the goggles-of-experience off and looking at this star vehicle for Bruce Willis. Willis was best known for the light comedy of Moonlighting when he hit the heights in Die Hard, and he continued to be a name draw in a series of big movies, with notable comebacks in Pulp Fiction, Looper, and The Sixth Sense. Despite such over-the-top mellers as Striking Distance and Mercury Rising, he was a personification of an everyman, vulnerable and ordinary in a fashion that Stallone or Schwarzenegger didn’t have in their locker. Cast here as David, the sole survivor of a unseen train crash, he slowly awakens to the idea that not only does he have super-powers, but that he’s in a world in which others do too, notably Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson).

Unbreakable shares the same chilly, wintry backdrop of The Sixth Sense, but the twist isn’t saved until the end. Rather David is confronted by an overbearing back-up of evidence about his own condition, but refuses to accept his pre-ordained role. Of course, comic-book movies were not-in-fashion at the time, so Unbreakable was marketed as a supernatural thriller, and derives surprising gravity from digging into the theme of the unknown. The director later complained about the mis-representation of the film’s themes, but supernatural and comic-book elements should not be strangers, and it’s arguable that the detailed continuation of the David Dunn character elsewhere diminishes the impact of this original film.

Unbreakable is slow, even stately, but the underlying excitement of The Sixth Sense is still there, and Willis is a perfect centre for a story that plays games with expectations. A self-styled protector, David Dunn is a character who refuses to accept his potential, and while we now know where his embrace of his destiny takes him, his fear of an uncertain future makes for an unusual, character-driven thriller that’s peppered with memorable scenes, like an extended weightlifting scene that nails the character’s innate power and apprehension about what change might bring.

 

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  1. I’ve been meaning to rewatch this. I didn’t like it much when it came out – too slow! But I think another view, going in knowing a bit more what to expect, would really help me appreciate all the high ratings.

    • It was not the dazzler anticipated, but has a nice slow-burning quality now. Worth another shot…

  2. Come on! Five stars – at least. Very clever as the director’s stuff often is but also very thoughtful as it rarely is. Bruce minus the smirk is worth seeing alone. Plus a brilliant score.

    • Yes, it’s been nice hearing other appreciations of this film, and I’m keen to seperate it from the sequels; this has a different kind of energy. Perhaps it’s that steely restraint that stops me pulling out the 5 star tab, but it really is an absorbing film and Willis really should have got some statues to take home.

  3. I always thought this was a clever and thoughtful movie. MNS could have done a lot of things that would have made this much less interesting and much more like a typical caped dust-up. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen it, but the low-key everyman aspect of the build was really enjoyable.

    • Oh, thanks, I’m going to use MNS as my abbreviation from now on! I wondered how this would look 20 years later, but it’s really worth dusting off as a very untypical blockbuster.

    • That’s a great point you make about MNS only shooting the first third of his film; one jump ahead of the modern trend for doubling down on the best bit of an established story. That austerity and maturity sadly doesn’t affect the other two films, but Unbreakable has lots to commend in the way it inhabits the comic-book world without restoring to the old smash and grab tropes.

  4. Did really enjoy this one, and this was definitely in Willis’ good days so to speak. What he’s currently doing to his career is a real shame😔 But yeah this one was a good film, and still holds up pretty well in my opinion😊

    • You got off lightly! Totally agree, Willis was one of these actors who could create terrific pathos, and it’s well used here.

  5. Wise words. The Happening is a dreadful movie, and although Shyamalan has made a comeback with his sequels, they are a step down from this. His ideas seem to have run out of juice IMHO.

  6. I enjoyed this enough to buy it when I first watched it on dvd. But not enough to check out the next 2 installments. I’ve been wary of Shyamalan’s movies ever since the one where the trees try to kill people with pollen if they group together too closely.

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