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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #452: Unbreakable

Unbreakable (2000) is a movie that is becoming more and more relevant as time goes by. For one thing it is one of the last good movies M. Night Shyamalan made before his career took a pretty steep nose-dive. For another it deals with the idea of super heroes and villains in a world where none of those exist and yet and approaches these concepts while steeped in realism. Nowadays there are at least five super hero movies that come out every year, but Unbreakable still feels fresh and original despite the fact two of its actors are now part of the Marvel and DC movie universe.

Early on in his career Shyamalan became known for the twist endings in his movies, and Unbreakable is no exception. Unfortunately it took me 15 years to finally see the whole thing on Netflix and by then the ending had been spoiled just like with The Sixth Sense. Then the same thing happened again this year when Shyamalan released Split in which SPOILER ALERT, Bruce Willis has a cameo at the end. When the next sequel, Glass, comes out you can be sure I will be there on opening weekend and block out the Internet until I get to whatever twist ending he will come up with this time.

However even if you know what’s coming Unbreakable is still a lot of fun to watch in the way that it unfolds. Initially there are no signs that this belongs to the super hero genre and at times it almost feels like an episode of The X-Files. Bruce Willis’ David Dunn is a security guard living in Philadelphia who has not done anything extraordinary with his life. That is until the day he survives a massive train accident with not a single scratch on his body while every other passenger perished.

His miraculous survival attracts the attention of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson, who is now Nick Fury in the Marvel movies), the owner of a comic book store. Unlike the character of Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons, Elijah is no joke and does not see comic books as a joke either. When a customer says he will give a rare cover to his son as a birthday present, Elijah cancels the sale because that cover is a piece of art to be admired by connoisseurs. Elijah also suffers from a rare condition that makes his bones very fragile and prone to fractures. He reasons that if a man like him exists; there must be someone on the other end of the spectrum who would be near impervious to pain. Such a man could be a real super hero.

David naturally believes Elijah is a quack, but David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) would of course love it if his dad were a super hero. Eventually David grows curious and asks his wife Audrey (Robin Wright, who played warrior Antiope in this year’s Wonder Woman) exactly when was the last time David got sick? Looking back on his medical history David realizes the only time he truly suffered physically was during a near drowning incident. If you know comic books, and by now many people do, you would know most superheroes have at least one key weakness and Elijah deduces that David’s is water.

By the end of Unbreakable you have a superhero who has accepted his mission in life, has chosen a low-key costume, and has encountered a surprising super villain. Yet all of this takes place without any of the massive third-act explosions of the DC films, the cosmic weirdness of some of the Marvel films, or the presence of the colourful mutants of the Fox films. At the end of his journey David Dunn is still a pretty ordinary guy living in Philadelphia while trying to keep his marriage together, and the biggest fight he has is with a murderer the end credits refer to as The Orange Man. This is not exactly Star Lord versus Ego The Living Planet, but the fight is still beautifully shot and filled with suspense.

Thanks to the way Shyamalan uses Bruce Willis’ everyman persona you feel as though his character is a real person living in our world where there is no such thing as super powers. It still stands in today’s crowded field of comic book adaptations and now that Shyamalan’s career seems to be finally on the rise again it will be very interesting to see what he does with the further adventures of David Dunn.     


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