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Film Review: ‘Unbroken: Path to Redemption’

True-life drama plays like formulaic fiction in this faith-based follow-up to the story of World War II survivor Louis Zamperini.

Director:
Harold Cronk
With:
Samuel Hunt, Merritt Patterson, Bobby Campo, Vanessa Bell Calloway, David Sakurai, Gary Cole, Will Graham, Bob Gunton, Vincenzo Amato.
Release Date:
Sep 14, 2018

Rated PG-13  1 hour 38 minutes

As Paul Harvey used to say: And now, the rest of the story. “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” serves as a kinda-sorta sequel to “Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s harrowing 2014 drama about the War II experiences of Louis Zamperini, the Olympian distance runner and Army Air Forces bombardier who survived 47 days on a life raft after his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, then endured two years of merciless torture in a Japanese POW camp. This follow-up — which, like its predecessor, is taken from Lauren Hillenbrand’s nonfiction best-seller “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” — focuses on Zamperini’s postwar struggles with alcoholism, crushing disappointment (an injury prevents him from competing in another Olympics), and recurring nightmares and hallucinations triggered by PTSD.

There is a happy ending to the story — but, unfortunately, it doesn’t arrive nearly soon enough.

It would be unfair, and not entirely accurate, to dismiss “Path to Redemption” as irredeemably dull and without merit. The well-cast Samuel Hunt generates ample sympathy in the lead role of Louis Zamperini with a performance that vividly conveys the troubled Army veteran’s emotional extremes. And despite the restrictions of what appears to have been a limited production budget, the movie persuasively evokes a 1940s period flavor throughout.

Trouble is, director Harold Cronk (“God’s Not Dead”) and veteran scriptwriters Richard Friedenberg (“A River Runs Through It”) and Ken Hixon (“Inventing the Abbotts”) have taken the specifics of Zamperini’s true-life story and shaped them into a generic faith-based drama that hits all the predictable beats audiences have come to expect from such uninspired fare. Indeed, compared with some recent and far superior movies dealing with crises of faith and spiritual redemption — “Beautifully Broken” and “All Saints” are just two fact-based examples that spring to mind — “Path to Redemption” plays like a throwback to an era when evangelical films were scarcely more than purposefully sincere sermons.

In the wake of World War II, Zamperini returns home to a hero’s welcome in Torrance, Calif., where he is warmly embraced by his Italian-American family and celebrated by national media. Early on, though, it’s clear that, despite his upbeat façade, Zamperini is damaged goods.

He is emotionally scarred by his wartime experiences and haunted by recurring visions of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (David Sakurai), aka the Bird, the sadistic POW camp officer who delighted in making Zamperini’s life a living hell. He can longer take solace in religion, as he has lost his faith in a loving and protective God. (When a priest describes his survival as a “miracle,” Zamperini balks: “Miracles didn’t save my tail feathers, padre. A couple of atomic bombs did that.”) So he starts to self-medicate with alcohol, to the point of appearing embarrassingly drunk on war bond tours.

His life takes a temporary uptick when, while vacationing in Miami, he meets, and quickly proposes to, Cynthia (Merritt Patterson), a beautiful and supportive woman who moves back to California with him. But the bad memories continue, the drinking problem worsens, and Zamperini — who cannot find adequate employment and is ill-equipped to deal with the duties of fatherhood after he and Cynthia have a child — appears unable to focus on anything other than a wishdream of returning to Japan with a gun to shoot the Bird.

It takes no less a spiritual advisor than Rev. Billy Graham (authoritatively portrayed here by the legendary evangelist’s grandson, Will Graham) to help Zamperini regain his faith in God and sense of purpose after Cynthia convinces her husband to attend one of Graham’s revival meetings. Like too many other things in “Path to Redemption,” however, Zamperini’s born-again transformation is dramatically announced without being adequately dramatized.

There’s no reason to doubt the good intentions of the people who made “Unbroken: The Path to Redemption.” But, well, you know what they say about the road to hell, right?

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Unbroken: Path to Redemption'

Reviewed online, Toronto, Sept. 12, 2018. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: A Pure Flix Entertainment release and presentation in association with The WTA Group and Universal 1440 Entertainment of a Matt Baer Films production. Producers: Matthew Baer, Mike Elliott. Executive producers: Cynthia Garris, Dave Mechem, Bill Reeves, Erik Weir, Luke Zamperini.

Crew: Director: Harold Cronk. Screenplay: Richard Friedenberg, Ken Hixon, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand. Camera (color): Zoran Popovic. Editor: Amy McGrath.

With: Samuel Hunt, Merritt Patterson, Bobby Campo, Vanessa Bell Calloway, David Sakurai, Gary Cole, Will Graham, Bob Gunton, Vincenzo Amato.

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