"I see dead people," little Haley Joel Osment intoned ominously in last year's The Sixth Sense, the artfully directed, almost perfectly constructed ghost story from filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. We saw them, too: The eerie psychological thriller racked up nearly $700 million worldwide, becoming one of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time.
If there were a catch phrase in "Unbreakable," Shyamalan's appealing but less accomplished follow-up (which also features Willis), it might go something like this: "I see superheroes." The line would be spoken by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a strange, tough-talking, ostentatiously dressed man whose lifelong obsession with comic books has turned into a lucrative career as owner of the Limited Edition gallery. He caters to serious collectors, and in one off-putting scene turns nasty when shooing away a potential customer who plans to buy a print for his 4-year-old son.
Price was born with a rare disease that has left his bones brittle and extremely vulnerable to trauma. Throughout his life, he's spent plenty of time in hospitals. There as at work, he's had ample opportunity to let his mind wander around in the world of fantasy figures -- vessels of good and evil gifted with superhuman talents and cursed with highly individualized Achilles' heels.
This loner -- referred to by some acquaintances as Mr. Glass -- may in fact have difficulty distinguishing between the pen-and-ink world and reality. Enter David Dunn (Willis), a troubled security guard and former college football star blessed with a bit of unexpected celebrity: He's the sole survivor of a train wreck that resulted in the deaths of 131 people.
The catastrophe (masterfully suggested by a quaking passenger car and then a cut to a TV news report on the disaster) has left Dunn dazed and confused. His malaise stems in part from a difficult relationship with his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), and their young son, Jeremy (Spencer Treat Clark). But it's amplified by the unspoken guilt of the survivor, a feeling that grows to particular strength during a memorial service for the families of the victims. Afterward, Dunn finds a cryptic note on his windshield: "How many days of your life have you been sick?"
Price has a theory about Dunn, one that's based not only on his survival of the train wreck but on a childhood swimming accident and a car crash that occurred while he was in college: Could the security guard be a person put here to protect and guard the rest of us?
Shyamalan (who has a cameo role as a drug dealer) is a master at creating mood and texture, and he expertly applies both in "Unbreakable." A stunning, unsettling opening scene details Price's birth at a department store in Philadelphia. His mother (Charlayne Woodard) is shattered to discover that her child has entered the world with broken legs and broken arms. Much of the scene plays out in a mirror placed in the corner of the room; a later scene between the 13-year-old boy and his mom is observed via the reflection of a television screen. This fragile child, it's implied, has survived in a world of shadows, thriving in what may or may not be an alternate universe of his own making.
As the story's coincidences and circumstantial evidence pile up, however, the unfolding mystery is neither as skillfully developed nor as gripping as Shyamalan intends. And it leads to a pay-off that just doesn't have enough substance. Color us disappointed.