There are three names to remember coming out of Unbroken, director Angelina Jolie’s handsomely mounted, old-fashioned ode to heroism under hell fire: Louis Zamperini, Jack O’Connell and Takamasa Ishihara, better known as Miyavi.
Zamperini is the ’30s-era Olympics distance runner who, after joining the Air Force during WWII, spent 47 days adrift in the Pacific following a plane crash, and then spent several years as a prisoner of war in Japanese labor camps. His amazing story is brought to life through O’Connell, an up-and-coming British actor who here gives a go-for-broke performance after having already gotten noticed this year in the excellent but little-seen prison drama Starred Up. Miyavi’s day job is as a rock star in his native Japan, but in Unbroken, where he plays prison-camp commander Watanabe (aka The Bird) — the man who wants to break Zamperini physically and emotionally — audiences will only see him as one thing: the embodiment of cruelty.
These three performances, along with the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, lend Unbroken — which, in other ways, is a rather routine survivor’s story — its sense of immediacy and urgency.
The film begins in Southern California, where a young Zamperini (C.J. Valleroy) gives his Italian immigrant mother plenty of reason to worry with his reckless, petty criminal behavior. His brother senses that Louis is headed down the wrong path and convinces him to join the school track team. It would be the first step that would take him to the 1936 Olympics.
As written by Joel and Ethan Coen (yes, those Coens), Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, this is all dealt with in a fairly perfunctory way; the movie is in a rush to get to Louis’ crash, survival at sea, and, finally, a horrific prison-camp experience that would have felled lesser men. This is one of those cases where the subject’s wildly colorful life, already chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s book on which the film is based, deserves the broader scope that a mini-series could provide.
While O’Connell remains the focus, several of the actors playing his fellow captives stand out, especially Domhnall Gleeson, who seems to be wasting away in front of our eyes.
Unbroken, Jolie’s second film as a features director (the first was the Bosnian War-themed In the Land of Blood and Honey), is hardly the work of a cinematic revolutionary. At times, it’s formulaic to the point of cliche.
But when Zamperini and Watanabe face off in a war of wills, that doesn’t matter. Besides, if nothing else, it’s certainly better than the last time a good-looking Hollywood star decided to direct a movie about WWII. But the less said about George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, the better.
☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Jai Courtney, Domhnall Gleeson
Rated: PG-13 (war violence, intense sequences of brutality, brief strong language)
Run time: 137 min.