By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Bruce Willis, James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
In GLASS, M. Night Shyamalan attempts a smaller-scale, horror-tinged variation on THE AVENGERS: a movie combining characters and mythologies from previous separate films, specifically UNBREAKABLE and SPLIT. In the process, he tries to do a little bit of everything and doesn’t do quite enough of anything.
One of the great things about UNBREAKABLE, in which working-class David Dunn (Bruce Willis) slowly discovers he has superhuman abilities, is that its conclusion revealed it was planting the seeds of a hero’s saga—a real-world version of a comic-book crusader’s origins—without belaboring the point. The subtext becomes on-the-nose text in GLASS; one character even announces that “This is an origin story,” which is just part of the film’s labored philosophizing about comics, their tropes and meaning.
Dunn is now, 19 years after UNBREAKABLE’s events, running a home-security business in Philadelphia with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, one of a few returnees among the supporting cast). When not minding the store, he goes on “walks” during which he brushes up against others, able to sense their true natures and recent deeds from the contact, and he metes out vigilante justice against those who have done others wrong. While no one but Joseph is aware of his secret identity, this hooded alter ego has become an Internet folk hero—even if the press (in one of the film’s more subtle and thus successful digs at superhero phenomena) can’t seem to decide what to call him, variously nicknaming him “The Tip Toe Man” (Dunn hates that one), “The Green Guard” and “The Overseer.”
This sideline brings Dunn into contact with Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a.k.a. “The Horde,” whose 24 personalities include the monstrous, animalistic Beast. When we met him/them in SPLIT, McAvoy’s master class in multiple-personality performing was gunked up with cheap teen-girl-in-danger luridity, and it’s not promising when, early on in GLASS, he is seen to have a new quartet of cheerleader abductees chained up in an abandoned warehouse. Fortunately, Shyamalan dispenses with this story strand quickly and non-exploitatively, so he can get to what the audience has really come to watch: Dunn vs. Crumb, the everyman Superman vs. what is, essentially, an urban-underbelly Hulk.
That tussle, unfortunately, leads to their enforced residence in the Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Research Center, where the movie goes into a downhill slide from which it never recovers. Dunn and Crumb fall under the supervision of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who has devoted herself to the study of (what she thinks are) people with delusions of superheroic grandeur. And who else should be electronically locked up within those walls but Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the fragile-boned obsessive who, as UNBREAKABLE revealed, styled himself as a supervillain to force his positive opposite (i.e., Dunn) into the open. Dr. Staple wants to get to the bottom of their minds, and Paulson, who projects intelligence and dedication with ease, is a perfect choice for the part. But she’s not given much to play in Dr. Staple, who’s more a plot construct than a fleshed-out character, and GLASS settles into a rut of bloated interrogative scenes and tame attempts at intrigue involving the orderlies.
A key problem is that we don’t learn anything new about its central trio—no fresh sides to their personalities or abilities—nor are they given anything to do that we haven’t seen them do in their previous films. That leaves Willis and Jackson marching to familiar beats, while McAvoy at least has the advantage of multiple personae to portray, and he switches among them with aplomb (though would it have killed Shyamalan to introduce at least one new identity to surprise us?). Once GLASS takes us into Raven Hill, there’s very little in the way of drama or conflict, as our central trio are largely separated and Dunn spends what feels like about half an hour offscreen, and Dr. Staple spends too much screen time attempting to convince her “patients” that they are not the supernaturally gifted beings we already know they are. Instead of providing his protagonists/antagonists the opportunity for sufficient juicy interaction, Shyamalan dutifully brings back others from their pasts, including Crumb’s previous abductee Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Price’s mother (Charlayne Woodard), but they’re not given enough to do either. Taylor-Joy has one good scene reuniting with her former tormentor, and it’s affecting enough to suggest the better movie that might have been.
There are a few other good moments scattered throughout GLASS, right up to the lengthy climax, during which Shyamalan finds creative angles from which to shoot the mayhem. Yet the overall action doesn’t carry the charge of surprise that both the previous films in his so-called “Eastrail 177 Trilogy” delivered. That goes double for the twist ending, that staple of Shyamalan’s oeuvre that here merits a soft “Oh” instead of a shocked “Oh my God!” It’s spoiling nothing to say that GLASS concludes with the promise that the Eastrail train will continue chugging into a quartet; too bad it does so with a whimper rather than a bang.