A FORMULAIC AND UNNECESSARY
CODA TO UNBROKEN
Back in 2010, author Laura Hillenbrand released “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”, a non-fiction biography book based on the life and times of WWII hero Louis Zamperini; a former Olympic track star who survived a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean, spent 47 days drifting on a raft, and then survived more than two and a half years as a prison of war in three brutal Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Hillenbrand’s novel went on to become a huge bestselling success, selling millions of copies and winning several awards / honors. Over time, Hillenbrand’s Unbroken spent more than four years on The New York Times best seller list (14 weeks at the number one spot) and is (currently) the 5th longest-running non-fiction best seller of all time. Then in 2014, Universal Pictures / Legendary Pictures released Unbroken, a film adaptation of Hillenbrand’s bestselling novel. The film, which was directed by actress / director Angelina Jolie and starred actors Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, and Miyavi did have some mixed reviews from both critics and moviegoers (yet no one deny the palpable narrative being told) and did celebrate a modest box office return of $163 million against its $65 million production budget. Now, roughly four years later, Pure Flix Entertainment and director Harold Cronk present the continuation of Zamperini’s cinematic story in the film Unbroken: Path to Redemption. Does this “spiritual successor” movie to the 2014 release ring strong and true or is a bit “too little, too late” to fully capture a revisit Unbroken?
In 1945, after surviving at sea for an extremely prolonged duration and enduring the harsh life as a prisoner of war camp, WWII hero Louie Zamperini (Samuel Hunt) returns home to his family, who welcoming him with joyous celebration. While he appears to be fine and tells everyone how happy he is to be home, Louie suffers from Post-traumatic stress disorder, haunted by the memories of his war time ordeals, especially being tortured by Japanese Corporal Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (David Sakuari). To drown his sorrows, he turns to alcohol, which keeps his inner demons at bay. During a vacation trip to Miami, Louie meets up with Cynthia Applewhite (Merritt Patterson), as the two fall instantly in love with each other. In time, their blossoming romance turns into a marriage, with the young couple move in together in place in Los Angeles. However, Louie still struggles with his PTSD and alcoholism, which threatens to break apart his marriage with his wife and their recently newborn little girl. When Cynthia is introduced to Billy Graham (Will Graham) and his Los Angeles Crusade of 1949, Louie comes to a crossroads of his life; coming to a turning point over his destructive lifestyle, his haunted past, and his redemption of his soul.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Working at a bookstore, I remember when Hillenbrand’s Unbroken novel was released and it was a massive success. I recall that the book was up on our “top 10 bestsellers” bay for several years, with each week being shifted its numerical placement (titles would come and go, but Unbroken was always up there). Right around the time of its release, I did pick up the book (well, the advance read copy of it) and did read it and found it to be quite enjoyable and moving. Have to say, regardless if you haven’t the book or not (which I really do highly recommend), there’s not denying on how courageous and inspirational Zamperini’s story is. Perhaps this is the reason why Universal Pictures decided (some years later) to make an Unbroken film, bringing a sort of “cinematic” light to Zamperini’s harrowing tale. The movie itself, which I did see and review back when it got released in December 2014, was pretty good. Yes, I did have a few problems with the film (mostly its pacing and the movie failing to the “redemption” part of Zamperini’s story), but it was well-made film, well-acted from its cast (most notably (O’Connell and Miyavi in their respective roles), and still contained the fundamental core of Hillenbrand’s Unbroken (i.e. the survival and resilience of a man).
Of course, this brings me back to talking about Unbroken: Path to Redemption, a spiritual sequel /continuation to 2014’s Unbroken. To be quite honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie. Didn’t hear much about the announcement of the film being “greenlit”, never really heard much about the cast of the film, or the overall production duration. The only thing I remember seeing about this movie was the film’s trailer (once) in theaters when I went to see the film I Can Only Imagine (back in March 2018). Like many, I was kind of surprised that there were gonna do another Unbroken film, especially since the 2014 feature really didn’t warrant a second installment follow-up. Still, I was a bit interested to see where this movie was gonna ultimately shape up, especially given the fact that the first film didn’t cover the third act (i.e. the redemption piece) of Hillenbrand’s novel. That being said, after initially seeing the film’s movie trailer back in March 2018, I never saw it again (in theaters or online) and kind of forgot about the upcoming feature…. that is until I saw it was coming to theaters (when I was scrolling the September movie releases online). So, I decided to see the movie on its opening weekend to see if it the movie was a worthy successor. What did I think of it? While the movie sort of completes the cinematic journey of Louie Zamperini’s tale on the silver screen, the truth is that Unbroken: Path to Redemption is an unnecessary and predictable epilogue to the original 2014 film. It’s still moving and inspirational, but it’s too formulaic and doesn’t go deep enough.
While actress / director Angelina Jolie directed the original Unbroken movie, Path to Redemption is directed by Harold Cronk, whose previous works include other religious faith-based films like God’s Not Dead, God’s Not Dead 2, and God Bless the Broken Road. Given the fact that Path to Redemption does partly focus on the religious aspect of Zamperini’s life, Cronk does seem like a perfect fit to tackle such a project. In truth, a lot of Christians were a bit “muffed” and / or “upset” that Jolie’s 2014 Unbroken didn’t present the latter half of Hillenbrand’s novel (i.e. Zamperini’s post war life), which does feature the “redemption” piece of Louie’s life. Fortunately, Path to Redemption does present that part of the Unbroken narrative as the main focal point of the feature, with Cronk showcasing the struggle that Zamperini faces after the war, including his PTSD, his alcoholism, and his faith (which acts as the rousing climatic point of the feature). Additionally, Cronk as well as the film’s screenplay writer Richard Friedenberg and Ken Hixon. seems to streamline the film, with a brief montage opening that catches up us (the viewers) on the events of what occurred in the first Unbroken feature, before starting the journey where Path to Redemption begins. Those interested to see “what happened?” to Zamperini after the first film ended will be happy with this movie, which shows the complexity of a man who wants to move on to the next stage of his life (i.e. finding a job, finding a wife, having a kid, etc.), but is held back by his somewhat “destructive” isolation that he faces, haunted and terrorized by his past war memories. Naturally, this brings up the whole PTSD struggle that many returning home soldiers / veterans must face and endure for years (and some for the rest of lives) to the main focal point of the feature, with Cronk (and Friedenberg and Hixon) using it in flourishes throughout the film and playing up the inner turmoil that Zamperini faces. To be honest, it also some of the best parts, with some creative visual that shows Louie’s nightmares manifesting themselves into the real world and then throw him back into his darkened ordeals during WWII (be it sinking fighter jet, surviving on a raft, or being tortured by “The Bird”). Naturally (without spoiling it), the ending piece of the movie is the most resounding and inspirational part as it kind of brings a proper conclusion to the whole narrative.
In truth, Path to Redemption does sort of “cap” off the cinematic version of Louie Zamperini with the film acting as the “coda” to what began back in 2014. It also kind of interesting to see the two Unbroken films presented quite differently from each other, with one being a more big-time Hollywood endeavor that showcases 2/3’s of Hillenbrand’s book, while the other (this movie) is considered a “low budget” feature and showcases the last 1/3 of the story and is presented in a more “smaller scale” endeavor. Yet, Path to Redemption still carries the necessary emotional weight to make the character of Louie Zamperini a compelling / inspirational one. It just goes to show you how two films (that follow the same character as the protagonist) can be both distinctly different from each other.
What also succeeds in Path to Redemption is in its technical presentation. As a whole, the movie is a more low-budget endeavor, with the first Unbroken movie being made for $65 million and this film having a measly $6 million production budget. However, while the movie doesn’t have many big-time actors (more on that below), Cronk and his filmmaking team smartly utilizes their budget to make Path to Redemption feel authentic and appropriate for the film’s setting (circa mid to late 1940s attire) and other various backdrop nuances. Thus, the efforts made by Mayne Berke (production design), Diane Crooke (costume designs), and Frances Lynn Hermandez (art direction) should be commended in bringing the “look and feel” of the feature to life in a believable way. Additionally, the cinematography work Zoran Popvic is pretty good, especially during the nightmare / PTSD vision sequences that Zamperini has throughout the course of the movie. That being said, Popvic’s work can’t outmatch the more cinematic / stylish efforts made by Roger Deakins in the first Unbroken feature. What’s also good in the movie is the film’s score, which was composed by Brandon Roberts, which provides some heroic / rousing melodies as well as some somber / dramatic pieces when the film needs to be more serious or in its quieter moments.
Unfortunately, Path to Redemption does stumble in several areas and (for intents and purpose) can’t overtake the original 2014 Unbroken film. Perhaps the main reason is the simply fact that the movie is (for better or worse) quite necessary. Yes, as I mentioned above, the movie does tell the last part of Hillenbrand’s Unbroken book (completing Zamperini’s tale), but it just feels like one of those movies that really didn’t need to be made as the first Unbroken film gave a meaningful and poignant cinematic take on Louie Zamperini’s journey. Further examination into this idea can be lifted up from the whole narrative piece of Hillenbrand’s book as the subtitle reads “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”. Thus, the narrative arcs of “Survival”, Resilience”, and “Redemption” are the paramount pillars to fully examining Zamperini’s life story. The 2014 Unbroken film focused on the “Survival” (his journey being stranded on a raft for 47 days at sea) and “Resilience” (his time being held in captivity at a prisoner war camp) aspect of Hillenbrand’s subtitle and (for the most part) handle those points in very cinematically great way. Path to Redemption picks up the latter piece of “Redemption” narrative pillars and mostly succeeds on that endeavor. That being said, the “Survival” and “Resilience” pieces are far more interesting and more cinematically entertaining, which is what made Unbroken achieved in its undertaking. The “Redemption” part, while meaningful and does carry a sense an inspirational emotional weight to it, feels like the less interesting piece, which makes the movie feel less important than what the original Unbroken movie. In fact, Path to Redemption breezes by with a runtime of only 98 minutes (the somewhat average runtime of an animated feature), while Unbroken had a heftier runtime of 137 minutes. While some might argue that’s a good thing, the problem lies within its speedy runtime, which quickly glosses over many of the film’s events; presenting a few sequences of events in rather brisk fashion (i.e. the courtship of Louie and Cynthia).
The same within the context of what transpired during Louie’s past, which is presented through a series of flashback of nightmares. Yes, I do know that this is a suppose to be a continuation to the 2014 film, but the movie “assumes” you (the viewer) have watched that feature and doesn’t really give much additional content to those events (par the flashback nightmare scenes). Thus, those who walk into Path to Redemption (without seeing the first Unbroken film) will be a little confused as to Louie’s past and how clunky Cronk presents it all in the movie. Again, this movie is only telling the last 1/3 of the story and it certainly feels like it as it seems to stretch the narrative to its extreme. There’s so many avenues and parts that Cronk (and Friedenberg and Hixon) could’ve explored in order to add a bit more substance to the narrative story. However, the end result is a bit more empty-handed, especially when you compare it to the narrative found in the first Unbroken feature, leaving majority of the feature to playout in a rather flat and predictable manner (the movie’s structure follows a formulaic path that’s easy to see where its heading). This is where I think a story could’ve been (and should’ve been) presented as a mini-series (as an HBO / Playtone production like Band of Brothers and The Pacific), which would be more beneficial to the whole Unbroken narrative storyline (allowing more time for Zamperini’s tale to “breathe” and add plenty of more substance).
Additionally, given the almost four-year gap between both films, Path to Redemption has that feeling of being “too little, too late” to its own party as the allure and fascination to what Jolie’s 2014 Unbroken made seems to have diminished over the passing of years. It’s kind of like recent Hollywood trying to resurrect a lot of those popular movies with its “belated sequels” endeavor, which is kind of a “hit or miss” (mostly misses in my opinion). Thus, Path to Redemption falls into that category and, while it’s not horrible bad, its neither really that strong. Personally, Path to Redemption feels like one of those DTV / (Direct-to-Video) releases you sometimes see on DVD / Blu-Ray movie (you know some of those previews for less popular / non-theatrical release movies that you see before heading to the disc’s menu). I’m not discrediting the story being told, but the movie just doesn’t have the right amount of “oomph” to warrant a theatrical release and seem along the lines of one of those type of films. Essentially, most of the film is just mediocre, with less than cinematic story to its predecessor.
While the first Unbroken movie featured several recognizable actors in the movie, including Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, and Miyavi, almost none of them return for Path to Redemption. As a side-note, the only two who do return (from original 2014 movie) are actress Maddalena Ischiale (Cemetery Man and Sharkskin) and actor Vincenzo Amato (Golden Door and Respiro), who reprises his roles as Louie’s mother and father Louise and Anthony Zamperini respectfully. So (barring those two), with almost none of the original Unbroken cast returning for this spiritual successor sequel endeavor, a new cast of actors and actresses are selected to play these characters (both returning ones as well as new ones). The problem, however, is that most of the acting talents are pretty mediocre (in general). I’m not saying that they are (collectively) bad, but majority are just pretty “meh” (i.e. neither really good nor really bad. Just somewhere in-between). A perfect example of this is found in the film’s main protagonist character of Louie Zamperini, who is now being played actor Samuel Hunt. Known for his roles in Chicago P.D., Days of Our Lives, and Chicago Fire, Hunt is okay in the role as Louie. Yes, he hits all the right dramatic tones / moments of displaying a “broken” man that suffers from his nightmares of war and the destructive path he takes, but I just have a hard time buying into him. Maybe its his acting? Who knows…. I just don’t see him as Louie. You certainly “root” for him in the end, but Hunt’s iteration of Louie Zamperini is merely okay; finding more admiration of his character than the actor who plays him. Personally, I like O’Connell’s Louie better. The other poignant character that also returns (partly) is Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, who is now being played by actor David Sakurai, known for his roles in Iron Fist, Through Darkness, and Housewife. Why do I say partly? Well, that’s because the character of “The Bird” is only presented in Louie’s nightmare vision, which are compromised of fleeting glimpse of him. Sakuari does get the job done (being creepy and whispering doubt into Louie’s psyche / mind), but there’s just not much to him beyond Louie’s quick visions of him. Again, I personally think that Miyavi from the first Unbroken provided to be more effective physical presence as Watanabe.
Of the new characters, perhaps the one that stands out the most is the character of Cynthia Applewhite-Zamperini, who is played by actress Merritt Patterson. Known for her roles in The Royals, The Art of More, and Ravenswood, Patterson does make for the best in her particular role. While her character isn’t quite “reinventing the wheel” as the loving / concern wife to a young “struggling” man, Hunt does provide enough nuances (and her acting talents) to make her character the most endearing. Additionally, it’s also quite interesting that Christian American Evangelist William Graham IV (the grandson of Billy Graham), is featured in the movie and does portray a younger version of his grandfather (which is kind of cool). The rest of the film’s cast, including actor Bobby Campo (The Final Destination and Scream: The TV Series) as Louie’s brother Pete Zamperini, actress Gianna Simone (Hitting the Breaks and Mother’s Day) as Louie’s sister Sylvia Zamperini, actor Christopher Wallinger (Rizzoli & Isles and Battle Creek) as Russell “Phil” Phillips (who was originally played by Domhnall Gleeson in Unbroken), actress Vanessa Bell Calloway (Coming to America and Lakeview Terrace) as Cynthia, actor David DeLuise (Wizards of Waverly Place and Megas XLR) as Howard Lambert, actor Gary Cole (Office Space and One Hour Photo) as Dr. Bailey, actor Andrew Caldwell (Dan is Dead and Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja) as Harry Read, and actor Bob Gunton (Royal Pains and The Shawshank Redemption) as Major Ziegler, fill in the supporting roles throughout the film, with some having a bit more screen-time than others. Again, they’re okay in their respective roles, but none of them really make their characters their own. Thus, these characters are pretty “meh” for their respective sums.
When the war ended, his battle began” is the main tagline that sets the stage for a personal journey of Louie Zamperini’s post-war journey for the film Unbroken: Path to Redemption. Director Harold Cronk’s latest movie sees the return of Louie Zamperini, showcasing his life “after” war and the conflict he faces with battling his own personal demons. Unfortunately, while the movie has a good technical presentation and carries an emotional weight within its main narrative, especially bringing to light the destructive PTSD trauma that Zamperini faced as well as his religious aspect, majority of the film just feels pretty mediocre by following a predictable / formulaic path, middle-of-the-road acting from its cast, and an unnecessary (and less interesting) continuation to the 2014 film. The movie just lacks directorial finesse that original movie was able to achieve. Personally, I thought the movie was merely okay. The movie intentions were honest and true and (again) it does completely the cinematic iteration of Zamperini’s life on the silver screen, but it just felt unnecessary and could’ve been (as a whole) a better film. To me, I prefer the 2014 Unbroken film more than this movie. It is for that reason why I would recommend this movie as both an “iffy-choice” as well as an okay-ish “rent it” (no really rush to see the movie in theaters) or just to wait for it to come on TV at some point (it will probably be several channels in the coming year). As it stands, no one can ever deny what the real-life Louie Zamperini did and went through; providing a very remarkable and inspirational life that has touched the lives of million through his life story. In the end, however, Path to Redemption just feel like an overextended and unnecessary epilogue that doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor. The story is there, the movie…not so much.
2.8 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice / Rent It)
Released On: September 14th, 2018
Reviewed On: September 19th, 2018
Unbroken: Path to Redemption is 98 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content and related disturbing images