16 Blocks (2006)
If you think you’ve heard of 16 Blocks before, you may just be correct. There was a 1977 Clint Eastwood movie called The Guantlet where he was transporting a prostitute/mob witness on a bus, and hordes of dirty cops and mob enforcers are trying to eliminate this witness. So the bus gets shot up beyond all imaginable repair and something of a standoff occurs. If you’d rather rent The Guantlet than pay full price for 16 Blocks I can understand that, but 16 Blocks is an adequately entertaining return to form for director Richard Donner (The Goonies, Lethal Weapon).
Officer Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is the kind of New York cop that, when stationed at a crime scene, raids a drug dealer?s cabinet and helps himself to some booze. Jack is like a walking zombie, trudging from assignment to assignment. He’s stuck with one more assignment, transporting Eddie (Mos Def), a key witness in a government trial just 16 blocks away. Everything seems so routine, but then Jack thwarts an attempt to murder Eddie. He reports the attack and takes a breather in a bar. Shortly after, he’s greeted by his old partner, Frank (David Morse), who is ominously familiarity with Eddie. Seems Eddie saw something he shouldn’t have, and now a whole slew of dirty cops are going to go down if he testifies. Frank would appreciate it if Jack stepped aside, gave up Eddie, and everything would be square again. All he has to do is make sure Eddie misses his testimony deadline in an hour, dead or alive. A sudden conscience gives Jack a new life, and he?s determined to escort Eddie to the courthouse, no matter the cost. Frank is willing to stop this, no matter the cost. Let the countdown begin.
16 Blocks is a solid genre picture up until a bus standoff lets all the air out and kills the film’s jumpy momentum. Yes, it’s assembled out of worn clichés and plot elements from other flicks, but this cut-and-paste action flick is a cut above out of its determination. When 16 Blocks is cooking, and it does for stretches, the movie seems to be moving forward by sheer force of will. It’s somewhat admirable, and I’m convinced Donner is responsible for this as he settles into familiar territory. 16 Blocks successfully introduces obstacles and then lets our heroes find believable and entertaining ways to skirt past the danger and into the next obstacle. New York City really feels like its own integral character that’s central to the unfolding plot. 16 Blocks is nothing spectacular but it’s proficiently fun, that is, until that protracted bus standoff gums up the film’s flow. The contrivances become too glaring and 16 Blocks settles into an overly redemptive finish. 16 Blocks succeeds as long as it can, which is surprisingly longer than I would have estimated, but it eventually winds down with too much time left on the clock.
What the hell is up with Mos Def’s voice in this movie? I don’t know if he was trying to stretch his thespian wings, but going the entire film sounding like you’re a cartoon is not helpful (unless you’re Joey Lauren Adams). I seriously expected a tank of helium to be connected. It’s so mannered, so annoying, and so purposely “different” that you’re almost glad he may die in the film’s opening minutes. However, if this was Donner’s attempt to put the audience in Jack’s place, make us just as bedraggled and frustrated, then well done sire. It’s still not forgivable but at least I may understand.
Willis comes across perhaps a bit too realistic as a doughy, down-on-his-luck cop. It’s getting all too natural to see Willis wearing a badge, or at least holstering a weapon, so at least it’s nice to know he changes it up every once and a while. In 16 Blocks he’s overweight, over the hill, and even sports a limp; not exactly action star material unless you still consider your dad the Strongest Person in the World. It adds an interesting, gritty charm to the picture and Willis coasts on our goodwill. 16 Blocks tries to do too much with his character towards the end, encasing him in a crusade to better himself. There just isn’t that much substance there, folks.
I don’t understand why Jack or Eddie doesn’t phone the media as soon as they know the trigger-happy cops are gunning for them. Seriously, you’d think one call to the press and they’d be swarmed with TV cameras, and as a rule the more TV cameras pointed around you, the less likely someone is going to shoot you. This seems like a no brainier to me, as well as an opportunity to put the media in the cross hairs of danger; it’s win-win.
There are some moments in 16 Blocks that are perfect indicators about how familiar a movie like this has become. First, the “gotcha” edit. We see two sequences of action, Group A in a fixed location and Group B quickly descending toward that location when “voila” we’ve been had. The film reveals Group A has already left. I usually enjoy this bit of action sleight-of-hand, but when a movie has to pull the “gotcha” edit twice, then it’s a little like the boy who cried wolf. There’s also some stupid character slips meant to squeeze in tension. At the film’s sleepy climax, Jack is surrounded by men with their guns trained on him. He says he has a key piece of evidence is tucked away inside his coat pocket… and then he reaches in to grab it. Now wouldn’t an astute individual, let alone an experienced man of the law, just ask someone to grab it from him instead of reaching inside and giving people a reason to shoot? 16 Blocks has moments like these because the characters are all stock, so what does it matter if they alternate between brainy one second and bone-headed the next?
16 Blocks is an enjoyably retro genre flick, pasted together with stock characters, contrivances, and cliches, and yet the entire project nearly makes it to the finish line by sheer force of will. Despite the well-worn territory, Donner’s precision and some clever obstacle/resolution conflict keeps 16 Blocks passably entertaining. Willis and Def lack any real camaraderie, and you may want to strangle Def after listening to five seconds of his cartoonish voice, but it doesn’t matter because this film is about the journey, not the journeymen. 16 Blocks loses its way when it forgets this, spending the last act focusing on character dreams, morals, and redemption. 16 Blocks is a redemption of sorts for Donner; the man can still make nervy action sequences and keep an audience entertained, if even for only two acts. That’s worth a walk to the movie theater for most.
Nate’s Grade: C+