Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Angelina Jolie has now directed two Films –In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken – and she has already begun to carve out a niche for war-torn Dramas. But while very few saw or even remember Blood and Honey, the anticipation and Oscar buzz has been swelling for Unbroken for nearly a year. And with great expectations also comes even greater disappointment.
Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) was a rebellious young adult and former Olympian before he started fighting for the Americans during World War II. He survives a plane crash with two fellow crewmen, only to spend 47 days stranded on a raft floating in the Pacific Ocean. He refuses to give up but his will is tested even further after he is rescued by the Japanese navy, and then forced to live in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Unbroken is a spectacular Tale of survival, but it lacks the heart and soul needed to really make an emotional story like this soar. It is technically proficient, the cinematography often looks downright stunning and some scenes just look fantastic (the thrilling opening sequence among them). But the Film acts too much like the kind of Oscar-baiting nonsense studios have all but abandoned in the past decade. Worse yet, it comes off way too ruthless and off-putting – instead of really telling us anything about Zamperini (save for oddly-placed flashbacks), Jolie just treats the Audience to scene after scene of sanitized torture and brutality. The Film’s comparisons to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ are apt, not only for the Christ-like allusions late in the Film but also for Jolie’s fascination with destroying this Character over and over again. And do not get me started on how much time is spent on the raft. The Film clocks in at 137-minutes, and I would venture a guess that O’Connell suffers through at least 100 of them.
And yes, I still remain baffled and nearly shocked that Joel and Ethan Coen worked on the Script for this. It is a total departure for them in every sense of the word.
Despite Jolie’s penchant for violence, O’Connell is truly magnificent as Zamperini, never once giving you reason to look away from his stunning performance. A Festival Darling this year in Films like Starred Up and ’71, Unbroken is his true test – and he commands the screen with ease. He seems to share the same passion Jolie does for the Story, and makes the very best of his weakly-written Character. He is the only real Actor in the Film who gets anything meaningful to do, and his intensity and charisma really shine through even at the worst of times. He is complemented by a deliriously-evil performance by Takamasa Ishihara, who plays Lead Guard Watanabe at Zamperini’s POW Camp. He is referred to mainly as “The Bird”, and he leads many of the Film’s most horrific moments. He gives one of the best villainous performances of the year, and in a less competitive one, Ishihara would be a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor.
Unbroken is not a bad Film by any stretch, but it is also not the great Film many anticipated it would be. It falls somewhere in the middle. O’Connell is excellent in his first major Leading Role, and proves defiantly what a great Talent he will become. Jolie’s work behind the camera is still a bit rough, but her second attempt shows much promise for the future.
Universal Pictures Canada release UNBROKEN on Christmas Day.