If M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense") is searching for a director's trademark, I suggest he ditch the "gotcha" ending.
"The Sixth Sense" features one of the great "gotcha" moments in cinema history. Its ending is an unexpected, well-developed delight that leaves the audience with a spark of cleverness. That cleverness vaulted "Sense" into the highest-grossing films of all time, but the same cleverness has also clued moviegoers into Shyamalan's trickery. With "Unbreakable" (IMDb listing) the clever twist is always looming, and because it's expected, the twist's inevitable arrival flops onto the screen with the grace of a dead trout.
"Unbreakable," like "The Phantom Menace," is one of those films where someone should have pulled the director aside early on and convinced him to keep it simple. Unfortunately, success creates an impenetrable bubble around directors, so even if they solicit advice, they're not likely to hear the truth. The truth about "Unbreakable" is that it should have been marketed as a straight-forward superhero flick. It's a dramatic comic book, and nothing else. If audiences had been properly prepped before viewing, they'd be far more forgiving when the theatre lights come up. As it stands, "Unbreakable" is a "that's it?" movie it ends and you uncontrollably ask yourself "that's it?" The failure of "Unbreakable's" go-for-broke ending spreads a staleness over the entire film, eliciting the same feeling as a botched punchline and destroying what could have been a decent experience.
What's most unfortunate is that 90 percent of "Unbreakable" is intriguing. The story follows David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a forlorn, stiff-necked, sad-eyed security guard. We meet Dunn as he travels to his Philadelphia home by train. Leaning his bald head against the rail car window, it's clear that Dunn's life is one of tedium and missed opportunites. But all that changes when the train derails and Dunn wakes up in an emergency room, the sole survivor from an horrific accident.
At first, Dunn's survival is tossed off by himself and his loved ones but a note from a mysterious stranger pushes Dunn down a path of self discovery. The stranger is Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic art dealer who suffers from a brittle bone condition. Slowly, Dunn circles Price, cautiously listening to his almost-crazy theory of Dunn's superhuman gift a gift that makes him "unbreakable." Price's brittle condition and Dunn's imperviousness make them yin and yang, Price believes. They're two souls at opposite ends of the same curve.
Much of the film is dedicated to the slow dance between Price and Dunn, and for that Shyamalan deserves credit. The build-up to Dunn's epiphany (which isn't the surprise ending) is realistic. His progression into a new existence is well drawn. Even Dunn's first foray into crime fighting is believable. Unfortunately, the abrupt, screwy ending sends "Unbreakable's" methodical pacing into disarray.
What's odd is that taken in pieces, "Unbreakable" isn't a bad film. Each part is solid direction, story, acting, cinematography, etc. but nothing stands apart to grab the viewer. "The Sixth Sense" had grabbing elements in its clever story and the inspired performance from Haley Joel Osment. In "Unbreakable," Willis and Jackson are strong, but they're not enthralling. Shyamalan's direction is deft, but there's no master stroke. The pieces are arbitrary the same story could have been told in a different setting, with different actors and a different director. "Unbreakable" is a mediocre, forgettable film.
Filmfodder Grade: C