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Night Moves

Bruce Willis goes for broke in Unbreakable.

You got your Good. You got your Evil. And you got your thirty-year-old multimillionaire moviemaker to explain the difference to you.

Look out popcorn vendors. Here comes Unbreakable, the first film written and directed by young M. Night Shyamalan since he lit up the box office last year with a surprise hit called The Sixth Sense and got everyone in Hollywood talking about how he was the new master of suspense. Or the new king of horror. Or the deepest thinker to hit Sunset and Vine since, say, Alex Trebek. One thing is sure: Shyamalan's credentials as the movie industry's new golden goose are in order. The Sixth Sense, all about a troubled boy who talked to dead people (including a dead child psychologist), has already grossed more than $660 million, and Blockbuster hasn't even hand-counted the receipts in Florida yet.

Unbreakable is more of the same -- and less. For one thing, bullet-headed Bruce Willis, the former action-star-turned-sensitive-guy who played the headshrinker last time around, is back. This time he's an unhappy, unfulfilled Philadelphia security guard named David Dunn who becomes the only survivor of a horrifying commuter-train wreck. When the smoke clears, there's not a scratch on him. Then, after some painful self-examination, he comes to realize that he has extraordinary physical strength and uncanny perception, as well as a higher purpose in the world. Shyamalan also comes up with another endearing kid. This time it's Dunn's bewildered son, Joseph (twelve-year-old Spencer Treat Clark), who sees the deep marital trouble between his father and his mother (a noticeably deglamorized Robin Wright Penn) but believes Dad is a superman. Oddly, he proves to be just about right. There's also a mysterious stranger, Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah Price, who becomes an intruder into David Dunn's messy life, then his invaluable mentor, then...well, you'll see for yourself should you choose to join the great throng of Shyamalanites knocking down the multiplex doors.

Bruce Willis has another dark victory in Unbreakable.
Bruce Willis has another dark victory in Unbreakable.

Millions of moviegoers took to The Sixth Sense like pilgrims to a shrine, and no one will be surprised if Unbreakable foments a similar cult. Because, while it affects the same gritty-naturalist surface as its predecessor, it's also stuffed with the same entertaining pop mysticism, and it turns out to be spray-painted with the same supernatural gloss. To start, Willis's character, who's given to long looks and low mumbles, serves as a kind of human antenna, sensing danger, violence and evil around him; he also becomes a real-life fantasy hero, saving damsels in distress and vanquishing the wicked. Here's more delicious mumbo jumbo from M. Night's pen: Jackson's brilliant Elijah suffers from "glass-bone disease" (he's endured 54 fractures at last count), and his childhood obsession with superhero comic books has led him to the grownup belief that while "these are mediocre times," a few people -- like David Dunn -- are blessed with extraordinary powers and must be encouraged to develop them.

Thus comes into bloom a weird relationship between the security guard and his Svengali, through which the former discovers his true self. Before we're finished, David Dunn is transformed into an anonymous, hooded angel of mercy suddenly and mysteriously capable of bench-pressing 350 pounds down in the basement and compelled to do good on the evil streets of Philadelphia. It's at about this point that Shyamalan's spiritual focus grows a bit dim and confused; a little later the movie descends into gobbledygook -- just before rewarding us with a final twist. But no onslaught of muddled cosmology is likely to deter the acolytes who see this hot new director as a profound religious intellect -- an original, even -- rather than an entertainer with an uncanny gift for taking the public temperature and then repackaging some very old ideas in appealing new ways. To say it bluntly: Unbreakable doesn't break any new ground in the history of Western thought, but it might break a couple of records for the weekly grosses.

Willis seems to have found in Shyamalan's artistic embrace the perfect balance between his instinct for sweaty machismo and his desire to show the world that he's got acting range to burn. In Unbreakable he gets to chase a psychopathic killer wearing an orange jumpsuit from crime scene to crime scene in a driving rainstorm, as in his pumped-up Die Hard days. But he also gets to play tender husband and father, even going so far as to collapse in tears on the kitchen floor of his humble Philadelphia apartment. That the tough guy from New Jersey has deepened and ripened as an actor is unmistakable. Good for him, as long as he doesn't now decide to do Hamlet.

As for director Shyamalan, the sky's the limit -- as long as he keeps running up ticket profits that would make Bill Gates blush. His brand of clever supernatural melodrama hits the spot right now, and there's no reason to get off that magical horse anytime soon. But let's not turn him into some kind of philosopher king just yet, okay?

 
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