[Screen It]


(2014) (Jack O'Connell, Miyavi) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young American Olympic runner must contend with being stranded at sea and then imprisoned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WWII.
It's 1943, and after surviving a Zero attack during their bombing mission, the American crew of a B-24 is sent on a rescue mission. But they experience mechanical problems that result in their plane crashing into the Pacific ocean more than 800 miles south of Oahu, killing eight of the eleven men aboard. The survivors are the pilot, Capt. Russell Alan "Phil" Phillips (DOMHNALL GLEESON); tail gunner Sgt. Francis "Mac" McNamara (FINN WITTROCK); and bombardier second lieutenant Louis "Louie" Zamperini (JACK O'CONNELL).

The latter grew up as a troubled kid (C.J. VALLEROY) but turned around his life once his older brother, Pete (JOHN D'LEO), got him into running. Louie excelled at that and eventually participated in the 1936 Olympics. But now there's nowhere to run as he, Phil and Mac are stuck at sea in a life raft with little food and no water.

Forty-seven days later, two of them are captured by the Japanese, with Louie ending up in a POW camp run by the sadistic Mutsuhiro Watanabe (MIYAVI), a.k.a. "The Bird." Singled out by him, Louie must endure repeated beatings at his hands, all while trying to hold onto the advice given to him by fellow POW John Fitzgerald (GARRETT HEDLUND) who says that their best revenge against the Japanese will be surviving until the war is over.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While there's certainly nothing wrong it and there are probably millions of people in the same boat, I grew up in what I always call a Beaver Cleaver lifestyle. In other words, a middle class existence with no great traumas, all of which means any future biopic about me that featured my childhood would have a very boring beginning. That's in contrast to a number of people I know who would otherwise have hidden back-stories if they hadn't let me in on their past.

One was a coworker who was "drafted" into the Vietnamese army at the age of 14, following the fall of Saigon. After literal trench warfare and seeing buddies shot left and right, he went AWOL, returned home, gathered up his younger siblings, and set sail for freedom in a small boat. Their food ran out a few days into their "trip," followed by their water, and then there was the encounter with a typhoon and its waves so huge that he had to partially sink their boat to keep it from capsizing. That was followed by a run-in with a Soviet vessel (not a good thing at that time) and eventually becoming a homeless kid in Hong Kong before eventually lucking into being fostered by an American family.

Unless you knew of that story, you'd never have any reason to guess he went through such an ordeal. Many apparently said the same thing about Louie Zamperini, although he eventually became an inspirational speaker who shared the stories of his various highs and lows over the years. His tale now comes to the big screen in "Unbroken," and for anyone not familiar with the man or Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 best-seller of the same name, it's an amazing story.

Going from being a childhood delinquent to an Olympic runner and surviving 47 days at sea following the crash of his bomber into the Pacific to then enduring being brutalized for several years in a Japanese POW camp during WWII, his is a fascinating and harrowing but ultimately uplifting saga of the human spirit and persevering despite setbacks, challenges and the nasty nature of some fellow humans.

It's no surprise that it caught the attention of Hollywood, although I'm shocked it took so long for the film to be made, what with reports that rights to his story were purchased way back in the 1950s. Whatever the reason for that, the movie is now hitting theaters with Jack O'Connell playing Zamperini and Angelina Jolie marking her second time behind the camera as the film's director (following her debut with 2011's "In the Land of Blood and Honey").

Working from a script originally penned by William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese and then re-written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen once she came onboard, and utilizing the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins to capture her shots, Jolie helms with authority and delivers a finely polished product. Yet, despite all of that and the fascinating underlying story, the pic didn't engage or blow me away as I expected it would, and as it certainly should have. And while I thought my original assessment could have been affected by seeing this and many other Oscar contenders in a rush for all of our end of the year award voting, I had the same reaction upon seeing it a few weeks later for review purposes.

The odd thing is that I can't quite put my finger on any sort of definitive issue that's resulted in that now twice-over reaction, a mixed bag sentiment apparently shared by a fair number of other reviewers. To be accurate, none of it's bad and I never felt bored during the pic's 137-some minute runtime. And I certainly wasn't bothered by any sort of so-called Oscar bait trappings that some critics have accused the film of possessing and using to manipulate viewers.

That said, I was a bit concerned at the beginning when Jolie opts to interrupt a fairly gripping WWII battle sequence (where Zamperini and the rest of his B-24 bomber crew try to deliver their payload and are then attacked by Japanese Zeros) with a flashback to the bombardier's childhood. She then does the same during a later sequence where their plane is headed toward a likely disastrous crash into the Pacific following mechanical difficulties (that moment is split by a flashback to Zamperini's time in the 1936 Olympics). Those sorts of non-linear storytelling tactics can sometimes be irksome, not only for interrupting the flow of the scene or sequence, but also by drawing attention to the storyteller rather than the story.

Thankfully, Jolie doesn't continue using that back and forth approach, and the rest of the film proceeds straight out. Following a fairly lengthy middle section about the 47 days at sea, the story moves on to the POW scenes that round out the movie's running time. It's there that the protagonist has his repeated run-ins with the sadistic and brutal camp commander played with unnerving realism by Miyavi, a.k.a. Takamasa Ishihara, who should go down in the annals of cinema villains as one of the "best" (or worst depending on how one views such characters).

O'Connell is good as the protagonist, but like the film he didn't blow me away at any point, and that "helps" somewhat dampen the overall offering. As a comparison, I truly felt for Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) in "The Shawshank Redemption," and that character never endured the same degree of horrors as this one. Again, I can't pinpoint any distinct issue that caused by full-out lack of engagement. It's just an overriding quality of simply not quite reaching the level of excellence it sorely needs.

In the end, I found most everything about the film solid. I guess I was just expecting and hoping for more considering the amazing tale it's trying to tell. "Unbroken" is good when it should have been great, and thus it rates as just a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed December 4, 2014 / Posted December 25, 2014

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