Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:46 - Released 11/22/00

Perhaps the most rapidly up-and-coming director/producer of the moment is Indian-born, Philadelphia-bred M. Night Shyamalan, who garnered several Oscar nominations (including best picture, best director, and best screenplay) for his breakthrough success The Sixth Sense last year. The film had an intelligent story, a host of memorable images, and uniformly good performances by stars Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, and the pre-pubescent Haley Joel Osment (the latter two of which were also nominated). In Shyamalan's new film Unbreakable, Willis returns with another fine, understated turn, joined this time by Samuel L. Jackson. I won't be surprised if Shyamalan, who apparently emulates Steven Speilberg, gets a few Academy nods for this complex piece of cinema, too.

When I first heard of the premise for Unbreakable (physically disabled and sickly man searches for man who has never been injured or sick a day in his life), I had my doubts, and when I saw the comic book stats listed at the beginning of the film, I was baffled as to how these two elements would tie together. But it is exactly that connection which makes the film so fascinating, blending the realistic style of a depressed family man who is estranged from his wife and son with the exaggerated, colorful elements of comic book fare. It is filled with interesting choices from behind the camera, giving a sometimes skewed perspective of the world, and meaningful silences in the dialogue, reminiscent of Pinter.

Jackson's character, Elijah Price, is the comics enthusiast in this story. Born with both arms and both legs broken, he suffers from a condition called "Osteo-Genesis Imperfecta," which has him frequently ill and easily injured, and although he operates a comic book art gallery in Philadelphia, he spends most of his time alone, a bitter recluse. All his life, he says, Elijah has been searching for a person who is his exact opposite, a man who survives even the most terrible accidents unscathed, and he finds him when a major train wreck kills 131 passengers, all on board but security guard David Dunn (Willis), who walks away without a scratch. After the amazing news is broadcast, Elijah seeks David out, asking him if he ever has been ill. Although David and his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) dismiss the question at first, David must admit he doesn't remember any illness, ever. This is when Elijah makes the bold suggestion that David is a sort of modern-day superhero, whose depression stems from the fact that he is not fulfilling his destiny of protecting people from the evils of the world. David's son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) is the only one who believes this could be true, but as Elijah spends more time with David, he begins to wonder if the dark, disturbed man is right.

As Shyamalan's film quietly metamorphoses from a standard psychodrama to a larger-than-life tale of super-heroics, the change is so subtle it takes us by surprise. This may the most realistic and intelligent introduction of such a character that ever has been. Even as the surprise ending returns us to the regular, modern-day world, the possibility for a continuation of story is evident. Shyamalan's characters are realistic, yet at the same time they provide evidence that they could come right out of melodramatic Marvel pulp, and his rich cinematic atmosphere, while ostensibly normal and everyday, suggests a world seen through primary-colored half-tones. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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