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Unbroken

Year: 2014
Production Co: 3 Arts
Studio: Universal
Director: Angelina Jolie
Writer: Joel Coen/Ethan Coen/Richard LaGravanese/William Nicholson
Cast: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney

After a marketing campaign that enjoyed more attention than most thanks to director Angelina Jolie's high profile love-in with the film's real life hero Louie Zamperini before his death earlier this year, many will be interested to see if all the fuss is worth it.

It's a highly marketable concept, and one that seems tailor made for Academy voters too. Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) is a ne'er-do-well kid from a hard working immigrant Italian family in California when his older brother figures that since Louie's always running away from the varied trouble he gets into (including the cops), it might be his natural talent.

Somewhat inexplicably, he encourages Louie to train to be a professional runner, and the younger Zamperini does so, going all the way to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and nearly overshadowing the adulation paid to star runner Jesse Owens.

Fast forward a few years (which is where we meet Louie – his early life remembered in flashbacks) and he's a gunner on a US warplane bombing a target in Japan during the war while Zero fighters swoop through the sky around he and his crew.

Whether it's truly Jolie at the helm of the flight and battle sequences, cinematographer Roger Deakins or the special effects crew, they're among the most dizzying and thrilling in the movie, and Unbroken's first disappointment is that it never regains the same sense of movement again, going from zippy to increasingly leaden.

The plane takes damage but skilled pilots Phil (Domnhall Gleeson) and Cup (Jai Courtney) manage to bring the plane in with all hands.

A second mission on a plane that's been gutted for parts goes less well when the engines fail and Phil, Louie and their crewmates have no choice but to ditch in the Pacific Ocean. The three survivors float for 45 days, fighting off sharks, storms and sunstroke to finally be picked up by a Japanese warship and taken prisoner.

Separated from Phil, Louie finds himself thrown into a Tokyo prison camp where the coolly fearsome commander Watanabe (Japanese rock star Miyavi) immediately singles him out for worse mistreatment and torture than usual.

Even when Louie thinks the worst is over and Watanabe is transferred to another camp, history manages to treat him in the worst possible way when Louie is transferred right there after him to discover he's under the yoke of his tormentor all over again.

If Unbroken has one noteworthy achievement, it's that it makes you think it's much more brutal than it really is. If Jolie has a particular skill as a director it's that most of the worst violence is off screen, cut away from or cut short while still making you think you've seen something horrific. Much like Michael Haneke's Funny Games, it tricks you into remembering mankind's willingness for brutality as brutality itself.

It makes for a gruelling experience that's to be endured rather than enjoyed, and that's saying something in a PG film.

Other than that and a few inventive directorial flourishes the whole thing is a bit pedestrian. Partly it's because (despite the subject matter) it's a bit of a gilded lily. The tone is like something from the golden era where heroes were heroes and villains were villians. Despite his baby face, Miyavi as Louie's cruel antagonist does everything short of twirl a moustache to be eeevil.

And while Jack O'Connell indeed has the air of a movie star like you've heard, it's the kind of clear-cut, no-grey-areas movie star the Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart era was built on.

There are also a few places where either the editing or the script exhibit plot holes. One prison camp inmate makes great pains to assure everyone else the Japanese have orders to kill all prisoners if the war comes to an end, but when it does – even with the prisoners sure the end is coming by bullet any second – what happens instead makes no sense to the plot.

Also mysteriously absent is any distinctive mark from the Coen brothers, who contributed to the script. Maybe Zamperini needed to look up at Watanabe at some point and drawl 'the dude abides'.

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