[24 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
During a recent junket interview for his upcoming buddy comedy Cop Out, Bruce Willis gave film geeks like yours truly a real reason to rejoice. No, he didn’t announce yet another return to John McClane territory (though that MAY be happening) or a sequel to Surrogates (Shut up! Some of us liked it…). No, amid the hoopla and questions over director Kevin Smith’s window seat size, Willis told those willing to listen that M. Night Shyamalan might be ready to revisit his brilliant follow-up to the mainstream megahit, The Sixth Sense. Dealing realistically with comic book heroes and villains, Unbreakable was the first film in a proposed trilogy dealing with reluctant superman David Dunn and his physically fragile arch-nemesis Elijah Price.
With Samuel L. Jackson supposedly onboard and the once reluctant directing wunderkind desperate to rekindle some of his former commercial cache, it’s not hard to see how an Unbreakable sequel would be in the offing. Cop Out might be a hit for the former box office draw, but Willis hasn’t had a real financial success since his anemic PG-13 installment of his famous Die Hard franchise. Sure, he works a lot, but like Jackson (who’s still nursing the wounds from such big screen duds as The Spirit and Soul Men), a return to glory appears complicated. No one knows this better than Mr. Village. His recent resume has so many cinematic stumbles that, if his Summer 2010 entry The Last Airbender doesn’t hit with its Nickelodeon amped demo, he too will need a major career resurrection, pronto.
Oddly enough, Unbreakable might just be the movie that turned M. Night Shyamalan into the raging egomaniac he appeared to be circa Signs. While the film was not initially a success (at least, not in comparison to the Oscar-nominated bounty of Sense), it found a devoted audience on DVD. Touchstone, the Disney-based production company which backed Unbreakable, even approached the director about doing a follow-up. But when the bean counters got involved and looked at the potential cost (Willis and Jackson don’t come cheap) versus the still questionable audience appeal for the project, those plans were shuttled. Since then, the ups and downs of the business find all three men mired in situations that a movie like Unbreakable 2 might correct - that is, if it’s any good.
History would seem to indicate that it would be. The original remains a dazzling reimagining of the comic book origin story, a realistic depiction of ordinary human beings suddenly blessed/cursed with extraordinary abilities. Shyamalan indulged his visual excesses to great effect in bringing his story to life: Willis standing in the pouring rain, his dark figure in a hoodie poncho silhouetted against the darkened home he’s about to enter; the opening train wreck; the introduction of Jackson’s Elijah as a boy; the stadium sequence were Dunn tracks what he believes is a drug dealer; the moment during a workout where our hero realizes that he may be more powerful than any human being has a right; the awe-inspired sense of wonder and fear on his son’s face when he discovers the same.
As he does with most of his movies, Shyamalan uses color and repeating technical tricks to stay within a set thematic approach. He was never out to make a broad-based spectacle, F/X sweeping away any trace of character or deep psychological personality. Of course, this was the main criticism of Unbreakable. The film spent nearly two hours setting up the confrontation between Dunn and Price, making it out to be a clash of undeniable titans…and then, nothing. That’s right. Due to budgetary limits (and a sneaky desire to undermine expectations at every level in the narrative), Shyamalan authored the cosmic clash with a series of subtitles. As Willis stares in amazement at what Jackson has done to “prove” his theories, the film gives us a weak “and then this happened” honorarium before rolling the credits.
In his recent Q&A, Willis seems to suggest that Unbreakable 2 will be the all out good vs. evil beat down that the first film meticulously laid the foundation for. Even after the passage of ten years (and the same decade in addition to the actor’s age), it seems that action, not angst, will be the operative term for this potential return. Naturally, that begs the question - is that what made the original film so endearing? Would audiences have embraced it like they did had Shyamala simply shot a 20 minute stunt sequence, loaded the fisticuffs with as much burgeoning CGI as possible, and delivered the sturm and drang denouement the narrative implied? Or was the already unconventional nature of the story setting viewers up for a letdown, with the director never really ready to let fantasy mar his fact-based conceit?
This is the burden a sequel to Unbreakable carries into pre-production. We fans of the first film relish its desire to avoid eye candy and stick with telling an honest and wholly believable story. Part of the appeal is that both Willis and Jackson fail to come across as larger than life figures. Instead, they are firmly grounded in a kind of realism that a part two showboating slamfest would clearly undermine. Similarly, as intriguing as the prospect is of seeing Dunn and Price finally “realize” their purpose, where do things go from here? One of the great things about an origin story is it gets to fill in all the details and provide insight. Once we’ve had that, all that’s left is supercrimes and supercrimefighting - and once you’ve seen on man of steel stop a crumbling dam or an out of control airplane, you’ve made your point.
Still, if someone can find a new and inventive way to take an already intriguing post-modern comic book movie in new and novel directions, it’s Shyamalan. Sure, smirk all you want about his Lady with the Water ways, or his Nature gone nutzoid Happening. Back before he let hubris hinder his creativity, he was turning all manner of genres (the suspense thriller, the alien invasion) into creepy and wholly satisfying character studies. As long as he sticks with what made David Dunn and Elijah Price memorable in the first place, we are all in for Unbreakable 2. Just remember, it needs to remain unconventional. If not, it will probably be unbearable.