Jolie Flubs "Unbroken" From Director's Chair

No two film genres are more susceptible to cliche than sports and war movies, a ball that “Unbroken” regrettably picks up and runs with. And runs. And runs some more, until it’s entirely out of breath.

As the true story of an Olympic athlete turned World War II bombardier turned castaway turned prisoner of war, the film doesn’t lack for a logline. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book Unbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, And Redemption and co-scripted by the Coen brothers (“The Big Lebowski”), the project rings of a sure thing for second-time director Angelina Jolie.

But the end result is an utterly, exasperatingly normal work whose defining characteristic is that it has none. It shows no predisposition towards directing on the part of Jolie, nor does it know what to do with its admittedly inspirational source material – apart from layering on visual and musical schmaltz at every crossing.

Jack O’Connell (“300: Rise Of An Empire”) stars as Louis “Louie” Zamperini, son of Italian immigrants and initially reluctant long distance runner. The screenplay pivots between WWII and Louie’s childhood, beginning with an aerial dogfight over the Pacific before backtracking to his roots as an athlete. His upbringing is given substantial screen time but glossed over all the same, pulling the curtain back on a screenplay so shallow that cast and crew can’t help but run aground.

Once past an efficient but ordinary telling of Louie’s Olympic history – in the 1936 German games, no less – the pic shifts focus to Zamperini’s six weeks lost at sea. After their bomber suffers engine failure, Louie and two other survivors – Phil (Domhnall Gleeson, “About Time”) and Mac (Finn Witrock, “Noah”) – spend weeks on end adrift on a small, yellow raft, desperate for food and water and made crusty by the beaming sun. These are the film’s most compelling scenes, topped off by several suspenseful shark encounters featuring some great underwater work.

After being “rescued” by the Japanese, Louie is taken prisoner along with a hundred or so fellow Allied troops – among them a wise, grizzled lieutenant, John Fitzgerald (Garrett Hedlund, “Tron: Legacy”). This section sees the film’s single memorable performance, courtesy of Japanese rock star Miyavi. His portrayal of brutal sargeant Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe is the closest “Unbroken” comes to a revelation, the actor lending charisma and nuance to a role that ostensibly came without either on the page.

In these scenes especially, cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Skyfall”) gives the film an appropriately glossy look, overexposing his actors and their surroundings to distract from the void that lies beneath.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is equally transparent, hokey in all the wrong ways, but not quite as drizzled in phony sentimentality as the closing Coldplay track. It marks the divisive pop band’s worst version of themselves, a feature that “Unbroken” spreads generously among cast and crew. Jolie has done fluff before, but she fails to summon a single distinguishing mark here from behind the camera. Her bland leading man is similarly in over his head, and moviegoers will be hard-pressed to find a lone Coen-ism within the script. This is bottom-tier work from almost all involved, sterile and colorless and bizarrely – considering its director – without a single meaningful female presence.

Occasionally easy on the eyes, “Unbroken” isn’t exactly a chore to sit through, but it’s the kind of processed, rah-rah filmmaking mostly left to cable showings of 90s dramas like “Rudy” and “Forrest Gump.” It lacks the courtesy of ever being amusingly terrible, leaving itself to careen off narrative wall after narrative wall, peaking with an anti-climax so mundane that it’s undoubtedly true to life. Absent the expected emotional waves, “Unbroken” can’t even muster the surface tension of still water.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2014
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language)