If ever a filmmaker vaulted from unknown to lionized status on the basis of one film, it was M. Night Shyamalan with “The Sixth Sense,” a little-anticipated ghost story that became one of the 10 highest grossers of all time. The question of whether this singular writer-director can deliver again will, by itself, guarantee a large turnout for “Unbreakable.” The answer is that he delivers much of the same: Same star, same preoccupation with telepathic and quasi-supernatural/religious powers, same hushed tone and deliberate pace, same sense of absolute control. But there are also serious differences: A weaker story, increased pretentiousness, some ill-advised narrative zigzags and a “surprise” ending that can’t begin to compare with the one in his previous picture. In addition to the draw repped by Shyamalan, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, yarn possesses sufficient intrigue to hook audiences and keep them on board much of the way, so despite the ultimate sense of letdown, B.O. prospects are very sturdy.
Following a mysterious prologue revealing the birth in 1961 Philadelphia of a black boy who enters the world with broken arms and legs, second scene is so good that it raises what are gradually revealed to be unrealistic expectations. David Dun (Willis) is sitting by the window on a train shuttling to Philadelphia from New York, where he’s had a presumably unsuccessful job interview.
When an attractive young woman, Kelly (Leslie Stefanson), sits down next to him, he discreetly slips off his wedding ring and quietly chats her up, only to see her get up and move when he pushes too far. After putting his ring back on, he stares outside at the onrushing scenery until it becomes apparent that the train is moving too fast, at which point a cut to David’s son (Spencer Treat Clark) flipping TV channels reveals the news of a terrible derailment.
Brief scene obliquely provides all the exposition the viewer needs to know — the status of David’s marriage, his job uncertainty, his willingness to move to New York — while superbly building a quiet sense of unease. Much of it is shot with an agile hand-held camera positioned behind the seats in front of David and Kelly, the cuts are all significantly timed, and the mix of sounds — the subdued vocal tones, the ambient noise of the train, the sudden whoosh of an oncoming diesel — is wonderfully subtle.
Such a sequence establishes a sense of total confidence that one is in the hands of a master storyteller and creates an automatic viewer willingness to follow wherever he chooses to go.
Curiosity about where this is headed is further heightened when David turns out to be the sole survivor of the wreck, which killed 131 people; in fact, he escaped completely unscathed. Now a minor local celebrity, David agrees with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) to use his good fortune to give their dried-up relationship a new lease on life, but otherwise returns to his normal routine as a security guard at the university stadium where he was once a football star.
But a monkey wrench is introduced in the form of a note David finds on his car, reading, “How many days of your life have you been sick?” In fact, David has never taken a sick day and cannot remember ever having been ill, and his curiosity is piqued enough for him to track down the note’s sender, Elijah Price (Jackson), a stern, elegant, articulate man who walks tentatively with a cane and has transformed his childhood obsession with comics and superheroes into a profession as a gallery dealer selling original comicbook illustrations at extravagant prices.
Elijah, whose fragile condition was noted in the prologue, is preoccupied with strength and heroism due to his own lifelong debility, a rare disease that has caused him dozens of bone breaks and years of hospital time. David, he suspects, could be the man he’s long been searching for, someone at the opposite end of the spectrum from him, invulnerable, impervious to disease, an individual who “could protect us.”
David is balky and suspicious of such highfalutin conjecture, but Elijah keeps after him, pushing him to look deeper for the inner potential that David has always ignored. In an unlikely episode, Elijah falls while chasing a suspicious character fleeing the football stadium, breaking a bunch of bones in the process, and who should his rehab therapist turn out to be but Audrey, to whom he pours out his theories about the latent extraordinary possibilities within people.
David, Elijah rightly suspects, has a sixth sense, as it were, for sniffing out evil (properly exploited, this could make him a fortune in his chosen field of security); he shortly finds that he possesses the extraordinary intuitive power to enter a crowded room and detect who has committed acts ranging from the untoward to the despicable.
He also recalls distant memories of having walked away from a horrible auto accident in which he saved Audrey’s life, and of having almost drowned in a swimming pool, which gave him a lifelong fear of water that Elijah maintains is the Achilles’ heel that all superheroes have. “It’s your kryptonite,” he advises.
Some viewers will go along with all this, while others, like David himself, will resist. Because the mystery of where the story might be headed is sustained for so long, the film doesn’t go off the tracks all at once. But the superhero angle, which seems a bit odd when introduced, eventually feels all wrong, especially when invested with supernatural and spiritual dimensions that seem like holdovers from “The Sixth Sense.”
And while the earlier picture cast the sort of spell that would have been disrupted by any comic relief, the presence of pop culture refs via comics makes quite notable the absence of any humor or sense of fun, just as it makes its pretentions to deep meaning and self-importance all the more specious.
All the same, Shyamalan’s handling of individual sequences is often extremely impressive; he clearly knows exactly what he wants and how to achieve it. This time out, he receives a great assist from lenser Eduardo Serra, whose widescreen work within a subdued color scheme is enormously textured and arrestingly composed.
Also notable among the uniformly excellent craft contributions are Dylan Tichenor’s precision editing and James Newton Howard’s supple, supportive score.
In subdued, subtle form, Willis gently conveys the essence of a working-class man seemingly beaten down by life but mostly victimized by his own refusal to realize his true potential. Jackson lends his commanding presence and persuasive dialogue delivery to the odd role of Elijah, which never becomes fully dimensional enough despite its backstory of tragic vulnerability.
Wright Penn doesn’t do much with the flatly written wife part, and it’s during some of her domestic scenes with Willis a little more than an hour in that pic goes into lowest gear. As the couple’s son, Clark bears more than a passing resemblance to Haley Joel Osment, but the kid plays a decidedly peripheral role in this one.