A Chance Meeting Between Bruce Willis And Samuel L. Jackson Set The Stage For Unbreakable

The trailer for M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable" opens on David Dunn (Bruce Willis) in a hospital. A former college football star turned security guard, David is informed by an incredulous doctor he is the sole survivor of a horrific accident in which his train derailed and collided with another one, the debris spread over a mile. Just as miraculously, David managed to walk away from the disaster with nary a scratch on him. Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an art gallery owner with brittle bone disease, can be heard telling David he has the answers to all the questions running through his head. "Are you ready for the truth?" asks Elijah.

"Unbreakable," which arrived a year after Shyamalan's breakout success with "The Sixth Sense" in 1999, is a superhero origin story, though you wouldn't know it from the trailer. Its production company Touchstone Pictures, a now-inactive label Disney once used to release films deemed too mature for its family-friendly Walt Disney Pictures banner, was wary of playing up its comic book bonafides. Critics had only just begun to take superhero movies seriously again thanks to titles like Stephen Norrington's "Blade" and Bryan Singer's "X-Men," the latter of which only opened fourth months prior to "Unbreakable." On top of that, Shyamalan's meditative, melancholic thriller was a far cry from anything Marvel, DC, or any other comic giant had done up until that point.

Instead, Disney chose to shroud "Unbreakable" in mystery, using the promise of another mind-blowing Shyamalan twist — combined with Willis and Jackson's bankability as actors — as a carrot to tempt moviegoers. In Entertainment Weekly's oral history about the making of the film, its director and stars recounted the circumstances under which the movie came to be, starting with a real-life chance encounter between Willis and Jackson. 

'Somebody over there is trying to impersonate Sam Jackson'

Far from strangers, Willis and Jackson had previously shared the screen in 1995's "Die Hard with a Vengeance." The pair had also co-starred in "Pulp Fiction" a year before that, although their characters in the film only briefly cross paths when fate deems to bring them together. In the same way, the two unexpectedly met up just as Shyamalan was getting to work on "Unbreakable." Willis recalled:

"I was in a casino in Marrakech, in Morocco, and I saw this guy and I said, 'Somebody over there is trying to impersonate Sam Jackson.'"

No mere impersonator, it turned out Jackson just so happened to be in the casino at the same time as Willis. Jackson didn't immediately recognize his "Die Hard" co-star, either. "It looked kind of like Bruce, but Bruce hadn't started shaving his head yet and this guy had no hair," Jackson remembered. "I was like, "Hmm, could it be?" Then I heard his voice and said, 'It is Bruce.'" He continued:

"And Bruce went, 'Sam, there's this guy who's writing a script for us.' And he called M. Night on the phone and Night says to me, 'This is amazing. I'm writing one of your scenes right now.'"

Shockingly, the director of films like "Signs" and "Lady in the Water" didn't take it for granted this was a mere accident. "It was some crazy coincidence. And you know me, as with everything: 'Oh, must be a sign!'" Shymalan told EW. He proceeded to ask Jackson if he was a comic book fan, hoping he could tempt him into joining "Unbreakable" right then and there. "I'm in [the Los Angeles comic-book store] Golden Apple, like, twice a month. So my answer was 'Yes' and 'I'll do it,'" Jackson explained.

A superhero movie ahead of its time

While not at all a flop, "Unbreakable" didn't scale the same heights as "The Sixth Sense." Reviews were mostly positive, though critics took issue with the film's twist ending ("It seems a little arbitrary, as if Shyamalan plucked it out of the air, and tried to make it fit," argued Roger Ebert). And where "The Sixth Sense" was one of the highest-grossing movies of 1999, "Unbreakable" only just made it into the top 25 at the U.S. box office in 2000. But as comic book superheroes came to dominate the landscape over the years that came after, Shyamalan's thriller gained wider appreciation as a deconstruction of the genre ahead of its time.

Shyamalan commented on this in EW's oral history, and how it led to Disney marketing the film as a mystery-thriller rather than a superhero drama:

"It's so ironic now, but at the time, comic books were a crazy subject to make a movie about. It was a ridiculous conceit, because the subject matter is so gratuitous, you know? Comics are in big neon colors, so it became dogma for us to do the completely minimalistic, reality-based-drama version of that and not ever get into tights and capes."

The film's underwhelming box office performance also resulted in Shyamalan delaying his plans to make "Unbreakable" the first entry in a trilogy of movies — one that finally came to fruition with the release of his thrillers "Split" and "Glass" in 2017 and 2019 (respectively), nearly 20 years after Willis and Jackson's fortuitous encounter. Fate, or whatever you want to call it, can certainly be a fickle friend.