Every so often, an actor is paired with a director, and the result is movie greatness: Humphrey Bogart and John Huston; Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart -- and Cary Grant; John Wayne with John Ford, but also with Howard Hawks. Many would point to Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro, though I would say the collaboration has been limiting for DeNiro, and Scorcese is over rated.
It's too early to tell if director M. Night Shyamalan and Bruce Willis will be considered in this class of collaborators, but the early signs are promising.
After their huge success in last year's best thriller, "The Sixth Sense," Willis and Shyamalan again partner up in a suspenseful movie with spiritual overtones that has the theme of finding one's purpose in life.
Willis plays David Dunn, a onetime college football star, who now works as a security guard at a major college football stadium. He is unsettled in his life, estranged from his wife Audrey, (Robin Wright Penn) but adored by his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark).
After David is not only the sole survivor of a horrific train wreck, but emerges without a scratch, he is approached by a spooky comic book dealer, Elijah Price, (Sam Jackson). Elijah is convinced that David is the real life version of a comic book hero, and indestructible man who will never be content until he assumes his rightful mantle.
Elijah is David's polar opposite, a man with bones so brittle, that they break at the least bit of trauma. David dismisses Elijah as a pitiful kook at first, but the more he analyses his life, the more Elijah's theory begins to fit.
Shyamalan is known for his surprise endings -- and there is another doozy here -- but in "Unbreakable," there are several key plot twists that are rooting in character along the way, too. That makes this plot hard to discuss, as the meticulous way these points build and unfold are what makes this an uncommonly absorbing movie.
But I can say that as David gets closer to answering his calling, that it leads to a healing of not only his own conflicts, but of his family relationships, as well.
Sam Jackson gets the showier role here-- and an Oscar nomination is not out of the question-- but Willis is just as fine in a more subtle role. As in "The Sixth Sense," his performance is the glue that holds the others together, and once again he has terrific on-screen chemistry with a young actor who goes by all three of his names.
Shyamalan is less obvious with Christian imagery in "Unbreakable" than in "The Sixth Sense," but the lack of "Star Wars"-style mumbo jumbo about where David's gift came from points to God as having a mission for him.
The Hitchcock comparisons are apt in "Unbreakable" with Shyamalan's use of the camera to portray the characters' points of view, and an uncommon ability to use angles and focus to give insight to their emotions. Like Hitch, (particularly in "Vertigo") Shyamalan uses primary colors against bland backgrounds to heighten the mood.
On the lighter -- and more obvious -- side, Shyamalan also continues his habit of clever Hitchcock-like cameos in his own films.
Too many critics have unfairly compared "Unbreakable" to "The Sixth Sense" and found it wanting. They probably would also have complained had it been too much like the big hit. My advice is to take this finely crafted film on its own terms, and enjoy.