'Unbroken: Path to Redemption': Film Review

Earnest but familiar.
9/14/2018

Harold Cronk's inspirational drama continues the story of Louis Zamperini after he returned home after the war and experienced a spiritual crisis.

There's a reason that Angelina Jolie's screen adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling Unbroken left out most of the material covered in the book's second half. It just isn't very interesting. While the true-life wartime experiences of Louie Zamperini, who survived 47 days on a life raft in the ocean and then spent two years undergoing torture at a Japanese POW camp, made for gripping drama, what transpired after he got home does not. That's the chief take-away, at least, from the modestly budgeted sequel, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, directed by Harold Cronk (God's Not Dead).

After a quick montage featuring newspaper clips and archival footage recounting Zamperini's story, from his setting records as a runner in high school to competing in the 1936 Olympics to his travails during World War II, the film begins in 1950 with Louis (Samuel Hunt) revisiting Japan for the first time since the war ended. He's brought to see former Japanese soldiers convicted of war crimes, but he's mainly interested in one man. "Where's 'The Bird'?" Louis asks, referring to Mutsuhiro Watanabe, his sadistic chief tormentor during his captivity.

The story then flashes back to Louis returning to his California hometown after the end of the war, where it becomes evident that he's embittered by his experiences and suffering from PTSD. He also seems to have lost his faith in God, telling a priest that he wasn't saved by a miracle but rather the atomic bomb. Louis begins drinking heavily, even while touring the country at the request of the military to use his celebrity status to sell war bonds. And he frequently suffers from hallucinations, including frightening appearances by Watanabe (David Sakurai). An army shrink (Gary Cole) recommends treatment in the form of "narcosis therapy," which involves taking enough barbiturates to sleep 15-20 hours a day, an offer Louis declines.

When Louis marries the lovely Cynthia (Merritt Patterson) shortly after they meet while he's vacationing in Miami, it briefly looks like his life may turn around. But he continues his downward physical and emotional spiral, with his depression and drinking becoming even more severe after an injury derails his chance to compete in the next Olympic games.

It's only when he's dragged by Cynthia to a 1949 revival meeting featuring Billy Graham (played by grandson Will Graham, who unfortunately doesn't have his grandfather's charisma) that Louis experiences a spiritual epiphany. It all happens very quickly, but we know that it does, because Louis suddenly sports a beatific smile. It's then revealed that his trip to Japan wasn't motivated by a desire for revenge but rather to reassure his former captors that he bears no grudges.

The movie delivers an inspiring message about the power of faith and forgiveness, which is its obvious raison d'etre. But it does so in the sort of formulaic, cliched and simplistic manner that afflicts so many inspirational films. The director's weaknesses as a filmmaker are manifestly evident, especially in the clumsily rendered flashback and fantasy sequences, many involving "The Bird," that are more laughable than frightening. It doesn't help that Zamperini's story, while certainly moving, feels all too familiar here in the pic's unimaginative depiction of the sort of post-traumatic stress suffered by many war veterans. Other than the unique circumstances depicted in the original Unbroken, there's little here to differentiate his plight from so many others'.

Hunt, who more closely resembles the real-life Zamperini than Unbroken's Jack O'Connell, delivers a solid performance, and the film does a good job of evoking its mid-1940s time period. But it never comes alive as drama, with its most moving moments, ironically, coming in the epilogue featuring footage of its real-life subject who went on to become an inspirational speaker.

Production companies: Universal 1440 Entertainment, Matt Baer Films, The WTA Group
Distributor: Pure Flix Entertainment
Cast: Samuel Hunt, Merritt Patterson, Bobby Campo, Vanessa Bell Calloway, David Sakurai, Gary Cole, Will Graham
Director: Harold Cronk
Screenwriters: Richard Friedenberg, Ken Hixon
Producers: Matthew Baer, Mike Elliott
Executive producers: Cynthia Garris, Dave Mechem, Bill Reeves, Erik Weir, Luke Zamperini
Director of photography: Zoran Popovic
Production designer: Mayne Berke

Costume designer: Diane Crooke
Editor: Amy McGrath
Composer: Brandon Roberts
Casting: Nancy Nayor

Rated PG-13, 98 minutes

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