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'Unbroken' review: Well-crafted and compelling, from Angelina Jolie

Jack O'Connell portrays Olympian and war hero Louis

Jack O'Connell portrays Olympian and war hero Louis "Louie" Zamperini in a scene from "Unbroken." Credit: AP / David James

The posters and trailers for Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken" have positioned the movie as a story of survival. Its hero is Louis "Louie" Zamperini, an Italian-American who showed early potential as an Olympic runner but, like so many of his generation, put his life on hold to serve in World War II. The horrors he endured are chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand's book, which became the basis for Jolie's film.

Any segment of Zamperini's three-act tale could make its own movie. (The straight-ahead script is written partly by the Coen brothers.) As a troubled kid in Torrance, California, Zamperini (initially played by C.J. Valleroy) turned his life around by running track and eventually raced in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

When America entered the war, Zamperini (now played by newcomer Jack O'Connell) became a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator that crashed into the Pacific, leaving only him and two others to drift on rafts. After 47 grueling days -- and some of the film's most gripping scenes -- Zamperini announces, "I have good news and bad news." Their rescuers are Japanese.

To this point, "Unbroken" has been a handsomely directed but slightly aimless film. The acting has ranged from very fine (Domhnall Gleeson plays Zamperini's fellow soldier Phil Allen) to passable (O'Connell never quite comes into focus). Things change dramatically with the introduction of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a notorious prison-camp commander known as "The Bird."

Jolie gives this pivotal role to a 33-year-old rock singer, Miyavi, who is virtually unknown outside Japan. She may have gotten the idea from 1983's "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," which likewise cast pop musician Ryuichi Sakamoto as a Japanese camp commandant, but she clearly found the right man for the role.

Miyavi's performance is astounding. Effeminate and strangely sensual, he slips effortlessly between various psychotic personae -- tyrant, sadist, sycophant -- and in the end becomes the film's most fascinating figure. Once "Unbroken" finds its villain in Watanabe, Zamperini finds his purpose, and the movie comes alive.

The closing titles, which explain the fates of both men in the aftermath of the war, help put Zamperini's remarkable story into a larger and more meaningful context.

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