Call Him "Security"

Bruce Willis is the unwilling superhero in M. Night Shyamalan's dazzling comic book

Unbreakable is such a quiet film that, whenever a character speaks above a whisper, it sounds like the shattering of glass in a monastery. It's also a terribly sad movie; almost no one cracks a smile or a joke, and everyone wears the look of someone who's just spent the last hour sobbing uncontrollably.

As a university security guard named David Dunn, Bruce Willis, his drooping face often drenched in shadow, hangs low to the ground; he doesn't walk, he drags. But that's because, as David explains, he wakes up sad every single morning of his life, and he must carry that feeling every day as though it were a 1000-pound weight that threatens to break his soul. But not his body: David is, you see, the unbreakable man. His bones do not snap, and his blood does not succumb to viral infections; David, quite simply, never gets injured and never falls ill. David also can brush against a stranger and glimpse past evil deeds; he has his own Spider-Sense (or perhaps he just sees bad people). He is almost indestructible -- a superhero, lifted straight from the pages of a comic book.

Unbreakable, the second film from The Sixth Sense's writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan, is the first issue of a comic book, the origin story revealing how a mortal becomes a reluctant god. It is, simply, the movie X-Menwanted to be but could never have been no matter how many writers tackled it. Those heroes were two-dimensional, ripped straight from square boxes and word balloons, while David Dunn is a most human hero, overcome with all the fear and angst of a 1960s Stan Lee creation. He knows he is not spending his life the way he expected -- David was once a star football player, blessed with the gift of the touchdown gods -- but being a hero was never on his to-do list. It takes a train derailment at the film's beginning, one that leaves David as its sole survivor, and a man who is David's exact opposite to convince him to use his gifts.

Jackson (left) finds his comic book good guy in Willis, the world's saddest superhero
Jackson (left) finds his comic book good guy in Willis, the world's saddest superhero

Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is the ultimate breakable man: Suffering from osteogenesis imperfecta, which causes the bones to be extraordinarily fragile, Elijah was born with broken arms and legs. As a child he was afraid to go outside and play, a near impossibility anyway since his arm was always in a sling. He would leave his mother's apartment only to retrieve the gifts she left for him each day on a nearby playground bench -- comic books, the covers emblazoned with the Technicolor battles between square-jawed good and bug-eyed bad. "You make this decision to be afraid," Elijah's mother (Charlayne Woodard) tells her son when he is still a little boy, "and you will never turn back.'' Instead Elijah turned the pages of thousands and thousands of comic books: As an adult he opens a gallery in downtown Philadelphia called Limited Edition, from which he sells original comic-book art to only the true believer.

Elijah even looks as though he's stumbled from the pages of an old DC comic: He drives a car with an interior covered entirely in black padding; he walks with a cane made of glass; he dresses in clothes that look as though they were left over from old episodes of Star Trek; and he sports a cockeyed afro that makes him look as if he's moving even when he's standing still. Elijah has surrounded himself with comics, turning his home into walls of display stands containing thousands of bagged books that stare at him whenever he passes. The man virtually lives in his comic books, obsessing over their power and promise. "Comics are a form of history someone felt or experienced," he explains to David when they first meet, like a preacher obsessed with saving nonbelievers. (Unbreakableis the world's best advertisement for comic books, an elegiac infomercial.)

When Elijah hears that David has survived the train wreck that opens the movie -- it is never shown, as Shyamalan is far more interested in the aftermath than the destruction and carnage -- he knows he has found hisSuperman, someone who can provide hope in "mediocre times." After years spent scouring newspapers for survivors of horrifying disasters -- skyscraper fires, plane crashes -- he's finally stumbled across that magical combination of words: "a sole survivor who is miraculously unharmed." He wants David to be a flesh-and-blood god, the ultimate security guard who protects and watches over not just a college campus but an entire world. David at first isn't interested. His marriage to high-school sweetheart Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) has crumbled to the point where the two sleep in separate rooms. His young son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), is only beginning to warm up to his father, who has consciously kept wife and son at a distance for years. David is just too unhappy to assume the mantle of superhero. After all, how do you stop an evil genius with a whisper?

As this is the work of Shyamalan, layers and layers hide beneath Unbreakable's surface. If nothing else the filmmaker is a genius for making movies people needto see repeatedly in order to decipher meaning and motive; no wonder The Sixth Senseis the tenth-highest­grossing film of all time. Unbreakableis, in some ways, a far better film than The Sixth Sense, which played like the greatest Twilight Zoneepisode never aired. Once you discover the brilliant gimmick, you want to go back only to see whether Shyamalan cheated. Watch it a second time, and the story itself contains little emotional resonance, no matter how thoughtful the performances. The telling of the tale is far more important than the tale -- or, for that matter, the people in it.

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