Saturday, June 4, 2011

Neglected Masterpiece Series: UNBREAKABLE

Every once in a while a movie comes along that, for me, achieves perfection. More often than not these are not commercial or even critical successes. Many find their audiences later in life and become cult hits. Fight Club and Blade Runner are two well known examples. But often they simply languish in relative obscurity. I would like to shine a light on these movies simply because I think they deserve it. Why they weren't hugely successful upon release is beyond me. To my mind they are masterpieces, both in their originality and execution.

I'd like to start with a film that blew me away when I saw it - M Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable - which nobody else seemed to like that much. In any event I very rarely see it mentioned when people discuss their favourite films. No doubt it suffered in being compared to the director's debut, Sixth Sense, a runaway success. That's a pretty good little movie in its own right, but I think Unbreakable is even better. And here's why...

Everyone knows that Hollywood has spent the last few years plundering the back catalogue of legendary comics labels Marvel and DC for inspiration and that, broadly speaking, the results have been woefully bad. Spiderman was terrible and I don't even want to discuss The Incredible Hulk, probably the worst movie disaster since The Postman. For me, the only one that is worth a damn is the Hellboy franchise and of course Road to Perdition, which started life as a graphic novel.

Bruce Willis as David Dunn, reluctant hero

But the best comic-turned-movie for me is still Unbreakable. Shmayalan really did a superb job in capturing the feel of a comic book. And most remarkably he did it with barely any special effects at all.  To me the genius of Unbreakable is that it imbues the most important elements of the classic comic books - the downbeat hero and the tortured villian - with foibles and weaknesses that are all too human. The real achievement of the classic Marvel titles such as Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk (in particular) was that these guys were really outcasts in society, caught in a twilight zone of secrecy and isolation due to their super powers. They could never fit in and be normal because they were different. And that was not a source of joy to them but a source of pain and unhappiness.

Hollywood pretty much failed miserably to capture that in most of its efforts to render the comic book classics on the big screen, but Shyamalan manages it magnificently, taking the extremely ordinary character of David Dunn (note the alliteration, a common theme with comic book characters). When Dunn, a security guard at a baseball stadium, is the sole survivor of a catastrophic train crash, he thinks he's just very lucky, until he realises that in fact he cannot be killed and possesses superhuman strength. This would normally cue noisy celebrations and drinking through the night but Dunn immediately senses that his new powers are potentially as much of a curse as they are a boon.

Samuel L Jackson as Elijah Price: 'They call me Mr Glass'

The movie was criticised on its release for being too slow and drawn out. But it is precisely this pacing that gives Unbreakable its power. One has the time to savour each frame and camera movement, and the framing is remarkably remniscent of comic book panels, a nice touch. There is none of the frenetic editing and hyper-active camera movement that turns most of these superhero sagas into a headache-inducing carnival ride where you just keep wishing the thing would stop so you could get off.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the movie is its villain, played in extremely fine style by Samuel Jackson. Cursed from birth by a disease that makes his bones as brittle as a breadstick, Elijah Price is the most flamboyent character in the movie, and the one that most closely resembles an actual comic book character (blessedly, Dunn is never forced to wear a suit other than his security guard uniform, a nice subtle metaphor).

Hero and villain, destinies entwined

With his purple outfit, glass cane and styled 'fro, Elijah looks like the bassist in a 70s funk band, but Jackson yields to none of the OTT stylings that make other superhero movie villians so ludicrous. Instead he earns our sympathy, which is what characterised the all best villians from the Marvel classics (perhaps best represented by Swamp Thing, which, hopefully, will never be given the Hollywood 'treatment'.)

Jackson is the one that drives Dunn to accept his role as the superhero, an interesting twist, and it is not Elijah who Dunn is finally driven to defeat in a brilliant heart-stopping action sequence, but a serial rapist, a genuine taken from life creep with an all-too-real talent for escaping the attention of authorities.

Dunn has a weakness which he is not aware of - his powers are sapped when he is submerged in water. Shyamalan brilliantly utilises this to ratchet up the tension during the climatic clash between good and evil. In the end, it is that suburban staple, the swimming pool, which almost proves to be Dunn's undoing as he finally embraces his destiny and becomes the hero he is meant to be.

Sounds corny as hell, but it works and works brilliantly. Thanks to the downbeat pacing, superb characterisations from Willis and Jackson, and the beautifully subtle camera work, Unbreakable is a movie of quiet power, a haunting tribute to the great comic book heroes of the 70s that infested the imaginations of millions of children around the world and continue to garner new audiences to this day.