As we’ve seen countless times over the past decade or so, a great villain can really make a comic-book movie; a bad villain can definitely break one. M Night Shyamalan knows this, and wisely plays not one but two baddie trump cards in his genre-riffing thriller Glass – the third (and apparently final) entry in his mini cinematic universe.
Pairing Samuel L Jackson’s comics-obsessed puppet-master from Unbreakable (“First name: Mister. Second name: Glass”) with James McAvoy’s multifaceted serial killer from Split pays dividends for a threequel that’s been 19 years in the making. Chuck in Bruce Willis’ superpowered (or is he?) guardian David Dunn and you’ve got a compelling central trio: “The brains, the anarchist, the reluctant hero”. But in stitching together their stories and divvying up their screen time, Shyamalan’s also ended up with a film that’s a bit less sure-footed than its predecessors.
The plot pretty much picks up where both films left off. By day, Willis’ Dunn runs a security camera store with his grown-up son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark); by night, he takes undercover “walks” and dishes out vigilante justice as the ‘Overseer’, with the tech-savvy Joe acting as the Alfred to his Batman. Meanwhile, Kevin Wendall Crumb (McAvoy), labelled as ‘The Horde’ thanks to his 24 split personalities, is still at large and terrorising another group of abducted teenage girls.
When David and Kevin’s paths lead them to a brutal, full-on collision – the film’s first major action sequence – they are intercepted by authorities and sent to an institution under the care of Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist specialising in superhuman delusions. Her third patient? One Mr Glass. And that’s all within the first half hour.
Yep, there’s a lot going on in Glass, with Shyamalan back in full-on twisty-turny mode. Trouble is, the second-act switch to the confines of Staple’s facility, while intriguing, does mean the film loses its initial momentum. Shyamalan might be going for delayed gratification, but it’s not long before you’re willing the three to bust free from their prison – and the constraints of a barrel-load of exposition.
When the action sequences do come, though, they’re intense and impressively staged. Shot without much obvious CG enhancement, the super-powered dust-ups are grounded yet spectacular in their own way – the sound design especially means that you really do “feel” the punches. And while there are a few too many grimacing facial close-ups and CCTV-framed wide shots (likely a way of getting around budgetary constraints, but still a tad overused), McAvoy especially brings an immense physicality to the screen when The Beast – his monstrous 24th personality – comes out to play.
So, what of our three supers? Well, Willis puts in a solid shift, just as sympathetic and understated as his last outing in the green raincoat. But while it’s good to see him back in a role he clearly cares about, he’s not the film’s main focus. That role is split (no pun intended) between Jackson and McAvoy. As with the best villains, they both give incredibly physical, impressively layered performances – helped along by Anya Taylor-Joy (as Horde survivor Casey) and Charlayne Woodard (as mother Glass), their respective emotional anchors.
As you might suspect from the title, this should be Mr Glass’ film. And when he’s powered up to full villainous form, Jackson is a delight: scheming, sinister and fiercely intelligent with a wit to match, he certainly nabs the film’s best lines (“Call a board meeting or whatever,” he quips at one point to an indecisive Horde). But it’s really McAvoy that steals the show. Going even further than he did in Split, he offers up a fascinating, riotous performance as he switches effortlessly between Kevin’s various personalities. From college jock to excitable kid to stern matriarch to hulking brute – often all within the same scene – it really is something to behold.
While Glass’ triple-header conceit and busy plot machinations mean it’s not as tight or focused as Unbreakable or Split, it still boasts a pair of villains that most comic-book movies would kill for. And while Shyamalan’s penchant for rug-pulls and over-exposition often gets in the way, it’s an otherwise pacey thriller full of big ideas. A somewhat uneven trilogy closer, then – but a frequently gripping one.