Title: 16 Blocks
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Play Time: 1h 42mins
Director: Richard Donner
Screenwriters: Richard Wenk
Starring: Bruce Willis, Yasiin Bey, David Morse
I had all of the good will in the world toward 16 Blocks, and the movie — specifically the script by Richard Wenk — pounded away at it, leaving only bloody remains by the 90-minute mark. The film gets the characters right but sticks them in a plot that’s so wrong, one wants to weep for them. An action film with smart, vivid characters is the holy grail, but here’s a movie that brings the latter and botches the former. The action. “The easy part.”
It takes but a glimpse of Detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) to know what kind of movie this is going to be. Limping, slouching, barely alive, the guy is assigned to a menial task the moment he shows up on screen (he’s told to sit on a crime scene until someone else can get there, “and don’t touch anything”); when he gets back to the office and asks the secretary, “anything for me?” her response is “breath mints.” Lumbering out the door to head home in the morning, he is pulled over by his Lieutenant, who browbeats him into agreeing to transport a prisoner to the courthouse — “16 blocks in 118 minutes.” No big deal.
Of course, no one bothers to tell Mosley that the prisoner (Mos Def) is to testify against some crooked cops, and very soon he finds his exceedingly corrupt ex-partner (David Morse) and a posse of all-for-one-and-one-for-all police types determined to take out the kid, and Mosley with him if necessary. “Do what you always do,” Morse’s smarmy, arrogant, black-suited bad guy tells our hero, but we know damn well he won’t, unless what he always does is shoot people and start running like hell.
Bruce Willis speaks volumes with his gait, with the way he looks down at the floor, with the way he delivers lines like “I believe that life’s too long, and guys like you make it even longer.” Jack Mosely is not showboating with quips like that, and if he doesn’t really believe them, he comes as close as a not-quite-suicidal man can. We never really find out what happened to him — we get hints of something that went awry, and the ending gives us some generalities, but we mostly have to fill in the blanks from Willis’ performance. That’s fine by me.
Mos Def, meanwhile, comes on as a typically irritating fast-talker (I kept wondering why he was making those sounds instead of speaking like a normal person), but soon finds his rhythm and gives his character far more of a personality than is contained in the screenplay. I am pro-Mos Def in general — I may have been one of the few to appreciate his presence in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but this is a great example of the actor breathing life into something that might have been trite on its face.
Armed with all of this, plus veteran director Richard Donner at the helm, 16 Blocks still drops the ball. Conceptually, the film is a potential humdinger — 2 hours, 16 busy city blocks, go! — but the action winds up repetitive and occasionally really dumb; the script pulls the same stunt like half a dozen times, fooling us into thinking, uh-oh, now our heroes are screwed, but wait! It is really the bad guys who are screwed! I was never convinced that the action was taking place in an actual metropolitan landscape — the scenery seemed more or less arbitrary, with doors and corridors appearing for the characters’ convenience. It’s strange. I wonder if this wasn’t originally conceived as an action film. It seems half-hearted.
And then we come to the ending, which has the audacity to attempt the oldest trick in the book — a plot twist I didn’t even consider because at this point it can only be done ironically. (It’s not The Surprise Bulletproof Vest, but it’s roughly on that level.) This, after a five-minute shouting match wherein the hero and the villain lecture each other on the virtues and vices of corruption. The logical question is why they would do this, but the answer will make you roll your eyes.
By the time the epilogue rolled around, I was already morose and disappointed, but nothing prepared me for the movie’s sickeningly saccharine last gasp, the final nail in its coffin. 16 Blocks had me, then it lost me — and how.