Bruce Willis develops a 'sick sense'

The 29-year-old M. Night Shayamalan was brought up in Philadelphia, the son of sub-continental Indian parents, both of them doctors. He started to make short movies at the age of 10 and decided at 17 that he wanted to become a professional filmmaker, attending film school in New York rather than studying medicine.

Shayamalan's third film The Sixth Sense (its two low-budget predecessors made little impact and weren't released here) garnered six Oscar nominations and became the tenth most profitable film of all time.

Like The Sixth Sense, Shayamalan's new film, Unbreakable, is an occult thriller, and it too is set in Philadelphia, and stars Bruce Willis as a traumatised victim of violence. In this case Willis plays David Dunn, a former college football star with a tottering marriage and an unrewarding job as security officer at a university sports stadium. He emerges unscathed as the sole survivor of a railway accident in which 131 people die.

As David comes to terms with his miraculous delivery he's contacted by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the well-off African-American owner of a gallery dealing in original art works by comic book illustrators. Since birth, Elijah has suffered from a severe form of osteoporosis that results in constant fracturing of his bones, and he's in search of someone at the other end of the spectrum - someone like David who appears indestructible. Such a person, he believes, must have superhuman powers that could make him a hero comparable to those of ancient times, a type kept alive in purest form, so he argues, by comic books.

The Old Testament names (Elijah the prophet who sought to purify society and predated the coming of the Messiah; David the heroic leader and man of destiny) hint at the underlying allegory. With some subtlety the director traces the increasing if uneasy involvement of the two men and how one makes the other aware of his predetermined role.

As in The Sixth Sense the dark, lowering city provides a portentous setting for the story. Sometimes we're made to see events from the characters' point of view, as when we watch TV upside down through the eyes of David's hero-worshipping son looking at a newsreel of the train crash, or we observe a would-be assassin on a railway platform from the twisted perspective of Elijah after he's fallen down a flight of stairs and fractured several bones. More often, however, there are long takes in deep focus in which we overhear conversations at some distance, with bars, staircases, rows of restaurant tables, the seats of a railway carriage or open doors between the camera and the people we're listening to.

A visual tour-de-force occurs when David becomes aware of his unusual powers at night on the railway station concourse. His mind takes in confusing information about the depredations of those he bumps into, and he has to decide whose victims are most worthy of his heroic attentions. Shyamalan, however, doesn't know how to resolve his picture. It ends abruptly, surprisingly and shockingly, and one leaves vaguely dissatisfied. But it's a film to see, to enjoy, and perhaps to ponder.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Unbreakable at 20: the film that finally took superheroes seriously
M Night Shyamalan’s 2000 fantasy drama showed that superhero narratives can be told with patience and a straight face which changed the genre forever

Charles Bramesco

23, Nov, 2020 @2:35 PM

Article image
M Night Shyamalan announces sequel to Unbreakable and Split in same film
Director reveals both films will ‘collide’ in the new movie titled Glass, with Unbreakable’s Samuel L Jackson taking a lead role alongside Bruce Willis and Split’s James McAvoy

Andrew Pulver

27, Apr, 2017 @11:26 AM

Article image
Unbreakable review – supernatural thriller that sends you on a frantic mental scurry
Lingers potently in the mind for hours, and somehow without its flaws, eccentricities and longueurs it would not be the film it is

Peter Bradshaw

29, Dec, 2000 @12:21 AM

Article image
Glass review – an entertaining end to M Night Shyamalan’s superhero trilogy
Samuel L Jackson’s villain gets his origin story as the Unbreakable and Split characters join in the fun

Simran Hans

20, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Lethal weapons: Shane Black's pulp fiction is still the best action around
The screenwriter turned director, who dominated the action genre in the 90s, is back with The Nice Guys, which proves he’s still the hard-boiled king

John Patterson

23, May, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Shattered Glass: why we need to stop deconstructing our superheroes
M Night Shyamalan’s ambitious yet empty end to his comic book-inspired trilogy should be the last attempt to make faux-intellectual points about big screen heroes

Zach Vasquez

17, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Harrison Ford reclaims highest-grossing actor record from Samuel L Jackson
The 73-year-old Ford nudged Jackson from the top of the all-time US box office list after appearing in the latest Star Wars adventure

Benjamin Lee

08, Jan, 2016 @4:53 PM

Article image
Glass review – M Night Shyamalan's superheroes assemble
The director unites Samuel L Jackson, Bruce Willis and James McAvoy from earlier films in a pointless supernatural sequel

Peter Bradshaw

17, Jan, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Top 10 crime movies

Murder, robbery, revenge... some of the greatest films revolve around the vilest human acts. The Guardian and Observer's critics pick the best crime films ever made

18, Oct, 2013 @3:44 PM

Article image
The Hitman’s Bodyguard review – Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L Jackson sent to... Coventry?
This medium-octane buddy movie has the distinction of featuring a certain West Midlands city centre, but is too slow to turn into the romp promised

Mike McCahill

17, Aug, 2017 @5:00 AM