16 Blocks Review
Detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is not one of New York's finest. He's a drunk, he has a bad leg and he doesn't care about his job anymore. Jack's the guy who's given the easy assignments, like babysitting an apartment full of dead bodies till the CSI guys arrive or escorting a witness 16 blocks from the precinct house to the court building.
The latter should be a simple task but the witness is Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), a motormouthed thief who makes Donkey from Shrek look like the quiet, retiring type. After a few blocks of his non-stop chatter, Jack needs to stop for a bottle and that's when someone tries to blow away his witness. Saving Eddie by the skin of his teeth, Jack shelters him in a bar and calls for back-up. The back-up arrives and it's Jack's former partner Frank Nugent (David Morse). Unfortunately Frank is the man who wants Eddie dead.
To say 16 Blocks is derivative is to put it kindly. Have you seen Clint Eastwood's 1977 action thriller, The Gauntlet? That's the one where Clint plays an alcoholic detective sent to escort a witness to trial. The witness turns out to have the dirt on a powerful authority figure, who sends killers to prevent her testifying. Sound familiar? How about a major action scene set aboard a hijacked bus? 16 Blocks could pass for a remake of The Gauntlet. Had both films not been produced by Warner Bros, a lawsuit would surely have been filed.
If you haven't seen the Eastwood film, maybe you've seen Cop Land, in which Sylvester Stallone battles to protect a witness from his former police pals. I know you've seen Enemy Of The State and you'll remember Will Smith dashing about the city, trying to hide from the bad guys' tracking devices. The plot of 16 Blocks is like an amalgam of every fugitive film, every dirty cop movie and every chase flick ever made.
And here's the surprise: as familiar and predictable as the story is, 16 Blocks works as entertainment. It's gripping in spite of itself. While screenwriter Richard Wenk is obviously not the man to call if imaginative plotting is what you're after, he does write interesting characters and he makes you care about them. There are three major characters in this film, each of them quite complex and their relationships with each other provide a degree of human interest that redeems the hand-me-down material.
It helps that three superb actors have been cast in these parts. Bruce Willis is as good as he's been for years as Mosley. Bulked up, balding and gone to seed, Willis throws himself into the role of this depressed, ageing cop who's given up on being a good guy. The way Mosley is developed gives the film its heart. The more we learn about him, the more we care and the more we worry about whether he'll do the right thing. You may think you know the answer to that going in but Willis makes you wonder.
David Morse is a worthy antagonist. If Mosley isn't quite the good guy, Frank Nugent isn't entirely evil. He's simply a cop who took too many short cuts and now finds himself in a situation where he has to do terrible things or lose everything he's achieved. Morse makes him an intelligent and persuasive man. If you can't agree with his ethics, you can believe he does and you can believe that he could convince others, maybe even Jack.
The best performance in the film comes from Mos Def, as Eddie Bunker. Def walks a very tricky tightrope with his acting here. His character is supposed to be annoying and how do you play an annoying character without actually irritating the crap out of the audience? His solution is to make Eddie childlike, an innocent who talks to cover his fear. Then again, it might just be an act. Frank Nugent may be right and Eddie may be a clever career criminal who's playing Jack. You see what I mean by tricky.
There's another man whose contribution helps lift 16 Blocks out of generic mediocrity and that's director Richard Donner. One of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood, Donner's secret has been his gift for finding a human centre in big budget action pictures. Superman and the first two Lethal Weapons work so well because their heroes are so tremendously likeable. In recent years, Donner seemed to be losing this gift - his last film, Timeline was a particularly soulless piece of work. 16 Blocks sees him rediscover it. This is a human story with chases and shoot-outs built around it, it's not just an excuse for chases and shootouts. If the result is still no Lethal Weapon, maybe next time Donner should start by finding a storyline that isn't quite so shopworn.