Call Him "Security"

Bruce Willis is the unwilling superhero in Shyamalan's dazzling comic book

In Unbreakable, the characters are like Russian nesting eggs; the outside looks little like what's hiding inside. When we're first introduced to David, he's on a train from New York City to Philadelphia, pressing his shaved head against the cold of the window. For a moment, he comes to life, flirting with a beautiful woman who takes the seat next to him; he even slips off his wedding ring and hides it in his pocket. But it would be a mistake to judge him too quickly as an adulterous lout on the prowl, given that wife Audrey can barely stand to touch David when she meets him at the hospital after the accident. She won't hug him or hold his hand, even when they walk through a waiting room crowded with relatives of the train wreck's victims who gawk at the unscathed David as though he were a freak. Such, perhaps, is the plight of the superhero among mortals: He's forever alone, even among those who love him.

In some ways, David Dunn is not too far off from John McClane, the accidental hero of the first Die Hard. (By the second and third, the latter of which co-starred Jackson, McClane had become a formula hero, with a bloody undershirt as his de rigueur superhero uniform.) The films even begin almost the same way, with the sullen Willis on his way to see the wife he's managed to alienate. But here, Willis has replaced McClane's smirk with a frown, his giddy wisecracks with sighed plaints. In Die Hard, Willis looked and sounded as though he were having a blast--the kid with the toy gun, playing real-life cowboys and Indians. There was nothing at all reluctant about his heroism; he couldn't wait to pop the bad guy. But Willis, when he wasn't stretching and impressing in such films as In Country and 12 Monkeys, too often played the same role and wore the same expression--the dazed eyes and self-satisfied sneer.

Shyamalan opens that baggage, spills out its content, and leaves the empty shell; the spark is gone from Willis' eyes as he confronts a destiny he doesn't want but, deep down, knows he needs. When he finally dons his superhero uniform--his green security-guard poncho--he looks almost exactly like DC Comics' Spectre, a dead cop who dispenses justice from the beyond. (Not to read too much into it, but it could be interpreted as a sly nod to Willis' character from The Sixth Sense, another walking-and-talking corpse.) David always looks like he's on the verge of tears, and Willis gives a remarkable, wrenching performance: He is the most fragile indestructible man ever created.

The Bruce is loose: Willis plays the world’s saddest superhero in Unbreakable.
The Bruce is loose: Willis plays the world’s saddest superhero in Unbreakable.

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