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Soul Survivor

Bruce Willis discovers his better self in M. Night Shyamalan's heroic 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 1,000-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 can also 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-Men wanted 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 -- 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.

Bruce Willis plays the world's saddest superhero in Unbreakable.
Bruce Willis plays the world's saddest superhero in Unbreakable.

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Rated PG-13

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 only leave his mother's apartment 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 the square-jawed good guys and the 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 turns the pages of thousands and thousands of comic books: As an adult, he opens a gallery in downtown Philadelphia called Limited Edition, in which he sells original comic-book art only to 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 by. The man quite literally lives in a comic book, 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. (Unbreakable is 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 carnage -- he knows he has found his Superman, someone who can provide hope in "mediocre times." After years spent scouring newspapers for survivors of horrifying disasters, 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, there are layers and layers beneath Unbreakable's surface. If nothing else, the filmmaker is a genius for making movies people need to see repeatedly to decipher meaning and motive; no wonder The Sixth Sense is the 10th highest-grossing film of all time. Unbreakable is, in some ways, a far better film than The Sixth Sense, which played like the greatest Twilight Zone episode never aired. Once you discover the brilliant gimmick, you want to go back only to see whether Shyamalan cheated. Watch it again, 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.

In Unbreakable, the characters are like Russian nesting eggs; the outside looks little like what's hiding inside. When we're first introduced to David, he's on a train from New York City to Philadelphia, pressing his shaved head against the cold of the window. For a moment, he comes to life, flirting with a beautiful woman who takes the seat next to him; he even slips off his wedding ring and hides it in his pocket. But it would be a mistake to judge him too quickly as an adulterous lout on the prowl, given that wife Audrey can barely stand to touch him when she meets him at the hospital after the accident. She won't hug him or hold his hand, even when they walk through a waiting room crowded with relatives of the train-wreck victims. Such, perhaps, is the plight of the superhero among mortals: He's forever alone, even among those who love him.

In some ways, David Dunn is not too far off from John McClane, the accidental hero of the first Die Hard. The films even begin almost the same way, with the sullen Willis on his way to see the wife he's managed to alienate. But here, Willis has replaced McClane's smirk with a frown, his giddy wisecracks with sighed plaints. In Die Hard, Willis looked and sounded as if he was having a blast -- the kid with the toy gun, playing real-life cowboys and Indians. There was nothing at all reluctant about his heroism; he couldn't wait to pop the bad guy. But Willis, when he wasn't stretching and impressing in such films as In Country and 12 Monkeys, too often played the same role and wore the same expression -- the dazed eyes and self-satisfied sneer.

Shyamalan opens that baggage, spills out its content, and leaves the empty shell; the spark is gone from Willis's eyes as he confronts a destiny he doesn't want but, deep down, knows he needs. When he finally dons his superhero uniform -- a green security-guard poncho -- he looks almost exactly like DC Comics' Spectre, a dead cop who dispenses justice from the beyond. (Not to read too much into it, but it could be interpreted as a sly nod to Willis's character from The Sixth Sense, another walking-and-talking corpse.) David always looks as though he's on the verge of tears, and Willis gives a remarkable, wrenching performance: He is the most fragile indestructible man ever created.

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