Shyamalan's "Glass" Half-Full Of Thrills

The story of M. Night Shyamalan’s passage from prodigy (“The Sixth Sense”) to pariah (“The Happening” and “The Last Airbender”) requires no further amplification. It’s as ubiquitous as a nursery rhyme among even casual film fans. Many clung to the virtuoso-turned-hack’s 2015 film “The Visit” as some kind of return to form; more fell in line when he exploited mental illness (and his 2000 film “Unbreakable”) in 2017’s “Split,” a backdoor sequel (revealed in a half-assed final scene) that became his first bona fide smash in over a decade.

“Glass,” more or less a direct sequel to both films, has been rumored since the release of “Unbreakable,” so that it yields glimmers of the filmmaker’s prime is hardly a wonder. What is startling, though, is just how high these moments rise above their surroundings, both micro (the fairly dull first half of the film) and macro (Shyamalan’s now subpar filmography).

The best of “Glass” crops up during its second half, when its three leads finally face off: David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard and indestructible vigilante, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a superhuman with twenty-four distinct personalities (twenty-three of them collectively known as The Horde, number twenty-four known as The Beast), and the title character.

Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass and his tragic backstory almost singlehandedly bonded “Unbreakable” together, his ultimate reveal as a super smart supervillain coalescing the film into something very much ahead of its time: a postmodern comic book movie. Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” was still more than a year away; Shyamalan had already made a definitive commentary on the genre.

With Dunn and Crumb having headlined their own films, Jackson’s brittle-boned character endured as the main reason to revisit the world of “Unbreakable.” Elijah Price may not have a single line of dialogue through the first hour of “Glass” – an hour that laboriously unites its leads in a mental institution – but when Mr. Glass finally makes his move, the movie delivers the goods.

In the years since “Unbreakable,” David Dunn and his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) have built a home security business, partially as a cover for the elder’s vigilantism. Wearing his trademark poncho, David walks the streets of Philadelphia as a ghostly protector that locals have dubbed The Overseer. As seen in the final moments of “Split,” David finds himself on the trail of The Beast; here he and his son coordinate to rescue the monster’s latest victims.

But a psychiatrist named Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson) is on David’s trail, she and the authorities using their target’s impending confrontation with Crumb as an opportunity to bring both into custody.

Once all three leads are locked up, McAvoy reclaims center stage, doing his scenery-chewing thing as Crumb’s various personalities while Staple studies her subjects. (“Split” co-lead Anya Taylor-Joy reprises her role as Casey, the object of Crumb’s affections.) Convinced of their delusions rather than superpowers, Dr. Staple underestimates no one more than Mr. Glass, inhumanly patient as all great villains of cinema are. He waits for his moment.

Like in “Unbreakable,” Elijah thinks of the world as his sandbox; he’s finally found an adversary worthy of David’s physical gifts. His scheme to pit The Overseer against The Beast in a fight for the entire world to see – to prove once and for all the existence of superhumans – is pretty thrilling to see put into action. And Jackson’s unfailing screen presence is just the kick in the pants Shyamalan’s uneven screenplay requires to come to life.

None of this unfolds with the artistry or nuance of the director’s early work (his films, once lookers, are now murky and wan), and still, the flashes of vintage Shyamalan sustain. As Mr. Glass conducts his orchestra of violence to a crescendo, twinges of humanity cut against a backdrop of potentially paradigm-shifting events, recalling the high points of “Signs” as opposed to the accidental comedy of the movies that followed. Even a trademark twist hits the right note, not intended to take our breath away but provide just the right wrinkle to Elijah’s master plan. To push the postmodernism of “Unbreakable” just a little bit further.

M. Night Shyamalan will never regain the throne he rightfully claimed with “The Sixth Sense” – a film that has aged beautifully through ubiquity – but “Glass” reassures that he hasn’t entirely lost touch with the magic that made him a household name. In exchanging the exploitation of “Split” for the nuance of “Unbreakable,” he’s found a relatively happy medium between career highs and lows – between being the next Spielberg and the next Ed Wood. It’s something that both he and audiences should be able to live with.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: January 18, 2018
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and language)