‘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.