LAS VEGAS — At CinemaCon, most movie studios trot out a slew of their most recognizable actors and filmmakers. But when Angelina Jolie is in town, there’s really no need to bring any other star on stage.
That was the message Universal Studios conveyed Tuesday, when the actress surprised exhibitors by turning up to preview “Unbroken,” the World War II drama she directed, which is due out this Christmas.
It wasn’t that unusual to see a celebrity of her caliber at the event — this week, Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood and Mark Wahlberg all are scheduled for Sin City. It was different, however, for Universal to showcase something other than big-budget summer fare. In previous years, the only studio to devote serious time to year-end releases was 20th Century Fox, which spotlighted “Life of Pi” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in Las Vegas.
Universal clearly has high awards-season hopes for “Unbroken.” The studio bought the rights to the story of World War II hero Louis Zamperini in 1957, originally hoping to develop it as a starring vehicle for Tony Curtis. After a series of false starts, the project got the green light after Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book about Zamperini became a bestseller.
“Angie made this movie happen,” studio chairman Donna Langley told the crowd of movie theater owners. “She fought for it and earned the right to direct it.”
Starring newcomer Jack O’Connell, “Unbroken” follows Zamperini as he goes from Olympic runner to Army pilot and is captured by the Japanese after his plane goes down. Jolie described the protagonist — who is 97 and lives in L.A. — as the “toughest man [she’s] ever met,” a “true hero” and a “man of faith.”
“I wanted to make this film because in the end, its message is one we all need now more than ever,” Jolie said. “It’s the journey of a man finding his way through the darkness and into the light. It is about an imperfect person — one who we and our children can relate to.”
It's clear the movie will be an emotional one, not straying from the darker moments of his life. When he is taken prisoner overseas, he's shown being repeatedly beaten by both fellow Americans and Japanese soldiers. In another scene, he's trapped underwater while trying to escape from a plane crash — an uncomfortable passage to watch, given the recent Malaysia plane crash.
Another eerie moment came during a preview of "Fast & Furious 7," which gave the first glimpses of Paul Walker's final performance in the popular franchise. When Walker died in a car accident last November, he still had a substantial portion of "FF7" left to film. Universal decided to push the film's release from this summer to April 2015, with some reports indicating the studio would use CGI and body doubles for Walker in certain scenes.
But Walker was as much a part of the footage shown Tuesday as the rest of the cast, an ensemble that includes Vin Diesel, Ludacris and Michelle Rodriguez. The quick clip began midair with the crew seated in a massive plane holding all of their fast cars; one-by-one, each driver and vehicle was lifted out via crane and dropped onto the road.
"Just when you think it couldn't get any better, huh?" Walker's character, Brian O'Conner, says.
Universal also debuted footage from the 2015 “Despicable Me” spinoff, “Minions,” though a preview of “Dumb and Dumber To” got the biggest laughs. The sequel to the 1994 hit comedy picks up with Harry (Jeff Daniels) finding Lloyd (Jim Carrey) at a mental hospital. No, Lloyd hasn’t gone insane — he’s just been “faking it” for 20 years for a gag, apparently. Harry breaks Lloyd out of the joint — only after he’s ripped a catheter from his body — and soon learns he fathered a child years ago with a woman played by Kathleen Turner.
Not that that causes him to straighten up his act. Yes, the pair embark on a trip to find Harry’s offspring, but they're still up to their old high jinks.
“Check out the hotties at 12 o’clock,” Harry tells Lloyd after spotting some attractive ladies.
“That’s three hours away!” Lloyd laments. “Why can’t I check them out now?"
[For the Record, 6:30 p.m. March 25: An earlier version of this article said Universal bought the rights to "Unbroken" in 1957. The studio bought the rights to the story of World War II hero Louis Zampirini in 1957. The book "Unbroken" was published in 2010.]