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Saturday, Feb. 10, 2001

'UNBREAKABLE'

One for the guy upstairs


If God was in the mood for a really good movie, chances are he'd flip through the listings and make tracks for "Unbreakable." Everything about it has a huge appeal to the Omniscient: the dynamics of Good and Evil, the fundamental questions of Existence, man's helplessness in the face of accidental fate.

For all this, there's not one clergyman in the story, nor are there references to Higher Power, which I'm sure would be cause for anger and disappointment in less worthy pictures. Plus, in between asking the heavy questions, "Unbreakable" inserts protracted and brilliantly executed moments of fright. "OK, you sold me," I can almost hear the Divine Being conceding. "Get me a seat in the Heavenly Screening Room and a giant size box of Cracker Jacks while you're at it."

The Cracker Jacks, however, would be a mistake. "Unbreakable" is not the kind of picture that allows you to focus on the screen while digging for peanuts. It's the kind of picture that leaves your hand buried in the box, growing stickier by the minute, while you sit there with mouth agape, swallowing softly every five minutes. Touchstone Pictures paid director/writer M. Night Shyamalan $5 million for the screenplay alone, the highest such fee in cinema history, and they're saying it was worth every cent. You don't have to take their word for it, but you do want to be prepared.

"Unbreakable" marks the second collaboration between Shyamalan and Bruce Willis (after "The Sixth Sense"), and the pair certainly prove themselves equal to the task of following their own tough act. Once more, Shyamalan aims for a gradual upward spiraling of emotions and events that gather together in the end to form that one monumental moment, a moment as unexpected and astonishing as . . . crossing the street and suddenly seeing your grandmother, who lives on a different continent (almost unbelievable). And once more, the lights go up and one is aware, with every fiber of the senses, that one has witnessed something incredible.

"Unbreakable" begins with a man, sitting in a crowded train that will take him home to his family in Philadelphia. David (Willis) isn't too happy about it, and even attempts to pick up a cute sports agent who sits in the next seat. She's not available, however, and David falls silent. He feels a slight premonition of disaster. In the next scene, the train is derailed. All 131 passengers are dead except for David, who wakes up in a hospital without a scratch.

While his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) and son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) are happy about his survival, they are a bit spooked. How could he have remained uninjured, and more importantly, why him? David also asks himself these questions, but it's not until Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) contacts him that his inner anxieties start to take shape. "You're an Unbreakable," Elijah tells him. "Nothing can harm you." David recalls that he has never been ill or hurt in his entire life. Even a car accident had failed to dent him.

Elijah, on the other hand, goes by the nickname of "Mr. Glass." Born with a protein deficiency that left him with an extremely fragile bone structure, Elijah has spent most of his life in hospitals with broken bones. Having given up on an ordinary existence, Elijah is devoted to collecting and selling comic books. His gallery, called Limited Editions, displays authentic original drawings from hero/villain comics of 40 years ago. Elijah is convinced that David is the comic hero come to life, the possessor of an unbreakable body that enables him to combat evil and protect society.

The chemistry between Willis and Jackson is hopping from the first (and echoes some of the reluctant male bonding in "Die Hard 3." The visual contrast is stunning: Jackson dressed head to toe in black and purple padded leather, carrying a long metallic stick, emaciated and limping. Willis is your average American Dad with the obligatory baseball cap, jeans and windbreaker. Poles apart and physically incompatible, they become united in the knowledge that they understand each other, and share a mystery that may answer the big questions about good, evil and happiness.

But the real theme of "Unbreakable" stems from Shyamalan's childhood dilemma. Being born into a family of doctors, he was expected to take up a brilliant medical career. Shyamalan knew he wanted to make movies. If he didn't, he would lose track of himself and his raison d'e^tre, and would "wake up feeling sad, every single day."

Elijah sums it up in this memorable line: "Having a defect is not the greatest tragedy. The greatest tragedy . . . is not knowing your place in the world."

"Unbreakable" opens today at Marunouchi Louvre and other theaters.


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