A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, R, 105 mins.
Jack Mosley: Bruce Willis / Eddie Bunker: Mos Def / Frank Nugent:
David Morse / Briggs: Tig Fong / Jimmy Mulvey: Cylk Cozart /
Fitzpatrick: Michael F. Keenan / Kaller: Sasha Roiz
16 BLOCKS is a great throwback picture in terms of reminding viewers of how really good the thriller genre used to be. While watching it I felt a bit nostalgic in the sense that it reinforced how some of the best examples of the genre – especially in the 70’s – were character driven first and aesthetically stylized second.
Too many modern police procedurals are concocted out of witless and inane mayhem and MTV-inspired editing that borders on seizure inducing. 16 BLOCKS effortlessly realizes that the key to successfully and efficiently garnering an audience buy-in to the proceedings is by focusing on taught, tight, and well written characters first and action set pieces second. The film is expertly executed and is carried securely by its willingness to not feel slavish to the formulaic conventions.
At the heart of the film is yet another great and headstrong performance of everyman determination by Bruce Willis. Seemingly every film that he has committed himself to lately has been like some sort of glorious apology for past indiscretions. I painfully remember his willingness to headline films like the flavorless BANDITS from 2001 and the unabashedly awful and pitiful THE WHOLE TEN YARDS from 2004. Those films definitely did not stand up to deliver us Willis' strong points as an actor. Ever since YARDS he has clearly been on a roll. He played a aging, world-weary and withered police detective in one of the vignettes of the masterful SIN CITY of 2004, as well as being in the terribly underrated thriller HOSTAGE, also from last year. His comeback proceeds even more fully in 16 BLOCKS, where he once again plays an officer that immediately commands our empathy and identification with him.
Willis plays cops better than just about anyone. He cornered the market playing one in his breakout performance and John McClane in the first of three DIE HARD films. His work in them established how fluently he is able to infuse in his characters an unbridled resolve and fortitude while grounded them in a sort of natural reality. Sure, McClane got himself involved in some larger-than-life situations in the DIE HARD films, but under Willis’ command he effectively gave the films an odd credence; he was a vulnerable everyman that was caught up in extraordinary problems.
Some have criticized Willis for playing the same role over and over again. What these people fail to see is how gifted he is at playing the same role with different lenses on to the world. Yes, he has played cops countless times before, but they all breathe differently. McClane was cocky, smug, assured, and had a wiseass sensibility about his predicaments. Willis' role as a police negotiator in HOSTAGE had echoes of McClane, but felt somewhat more grounded as a character. In that film he was more of a layered and tortured character and less a straight-arrow protagonist than McClane was. The same is true for his angina-ridden cop in SIN CITY, who stretched a level of amoral justice that McClane would never cross. Now comes his work as Jack Mosley – yet another police officer – and this just may be one of his most memorable performances playing a law enforcer.
Like Robin Williams, I have always liked Willis more when he plays against type. Sure, McClane was a fun character, but roles like Mosley play up more to Willis' underrated prowess as an actor. He has definitely never looked physically worse than he does here in 16 BLOCKS. His Mosley is old, tired, overweight, downtrodden, and alcoholic. His face is a relative doorway into melancholy and disillusionment; it carries a sign that says I’ve been around the bend too many times, have seen too many terrible things, and have done one too many vile things myself.
He looks like he has not slept in weeks, his eyes have a droopy and glazed look of one that is near death, and his impaired movement indicates that this is a man that has proceeded beyond the autumn of his life. He likes to drink, so much so that – when called to the scene of a murder in an early scene in the film – he first rummages through the cupboards, not for clues, but for a whiskey bottle. In essence, the guy is a walking cliché, but with Willis at the helm, Mosley is a character of weight that goes beyond clichés. When a performance is this good, it rises the role above stock stereotypes.
After Mosley arrives back at the station all he can think about doing is going home. He looks like he could sleep for weeks, but is more or less looking forward to a one-night fling with a bottle of Wild Turkey. Just as he’s about to leave his boss gives him one last assignment for the evening. To Mosley, it's something any rookie could do and by his boss’ own admission, it’s a piece-of-cake assignment. Nevertheless, he wants Mosley to transport a witness 16 blocks to a grand jury hearing. He has to get him there within two hours before the grand jury’s term goes bye-bye. Sounds easy enough…right...even for a drunken officer?
Well, when he meets the witness – Eddie Bunker – his inebriated headache starts to transform into a full-on migraine. Eddie – played by Mos Def – has a mouth as big as a New York city street. He talks and talks and talks and complains and complains and complains. He does not shut up…ever. He babbles incessantly about everything from his bad treatment by authorities to the fact that he has to – no matter what – make it to the hearing on time. He also likes to discuss the particulars of his dreams in life. Most men like him usually go on to a further life of crime. He wants to run a bakery in Seattle and make cakes for a living. His theory is that anyone can change. Jack thinks otherwise.
Regardless of how much of a motor mouth Mosley thinks Eddie is, he takes the assignment and looks forward to getting home for a night with the bottle. As a matter of fact, he looks forward to drinking so much that he makes a quick stop on route to the courthouse at his favorite liquor store. As he leaves he notices someone very fishy that wants to do something equally fishy to Eddie. To protect himself and his “job”, he shoots the perpetrator, which under the circumstances seems like the correct use of police force. He takes the hapless Eddie away from the scene and calls in some help from his superior, Frank Nugent (David Morse) for backup and assistance.
It’s funny, but when you see Morse enter into a scene as a police officer, why do I always get the impression that he’s crooked? Well, my first hunch was, indeed, correct and during an ill-fated meeting at an abandoned saloon, we discover that Nugent is actually behind a ring of police extortion, drug dealing, murder…the whole nine yards. He also wants to frame and kill Eddie before he can testify. Mosley may be an equally twisted cop with a dark past himself, but he seems a bit above the level of intentionally murdering a witness. He does not like Eddie, per se, and can’t seem to stand the man’s ceaseless bickering, but he sure does not want murder on his conscience. Before things reach the point of no return, Mosley shoots one of the cops and both he and Eddie escape and are now fugitives. Not only must they make it to the courthouse on time, but also they now have to elude the dirty cops.
16 BLOCKS reminded me very much of a similar thriller, PHONE BOOTH. Both have very simple setups and premises that are carried very far by the slick and polished production values and by the equally strong and invigorating performances. 16 BLOCKS gives us a dim, dirty, washed out, and grimy look at the streets and is far less glossy and idealized than other modern genre films would have presented. This, of course, goes hand in hand with the withered visage of Mosley himself, who looks about as beat up as his surroundings. The film’s use of locations is so consummate and integral to the film’s aesthetic resolve. As the bad cops breathe down Mosley’s neck, so do the decrepit buildings and back alleys.
16 BLOCKS was directed by Richard Donner and it marks a much-needed comeback for him as an assured cinematic eye. After bringing us such memorable works like THE OMEN, the original SUPERMAN film, and the first two LETHAL WEAPON films, Donner seemed to slum his way through the 90’s and early part of this decade with the lame and unnecessary LETHAL WEAPON 4, the morose ASSASSINS, and the remarkably lackluster TIMELINE. 16 BLOCKS reinforces Donner’s mature directorial talents and his command over good material. His direction is firm, gritty, tight, and assured; it’s not too overly stylized and not too stiff either. He paces individual scenes very well and is not flashy in the way that many contemporary directors might have envisioned the film. He’s not interested in pulse-pounding visuals, odd and confusing camera angles, and breakneck editing. Instead, he lets the narrative and performances carry the film.
The acting by the three principles is uniformly strong. Willis – as already stated – plays his part with such a jaded and melancholic cynicism that he would easily find a home with the Popeye Doyle’s of the world. Some have complained that Willis is too monotone and gruff in the part. On the contrary, his lack of energy and vitality is perfect for Mosley’s sense of confusion, bitterness, and inner despair. Willis has never looked worse, but he plays looking awful and defeated with a commanding force and fortitude. Morse plays his role of the wicked cop with the prerequisite and much needed aura of mean spirited edge and icy resolve. He’s not so much a foil to Mosley as he is an ethical equal, which makes the character arc a bit more demanding and interesting (both are “bad” cops, but its how they conduct themselves within the same dire circumstances that is different).
Arguably, Mos Def gives the most thankless performance in the film. At first, his non-stop chattering is about as annoying as a hundred Fran Dressers, but as the film progresses one senses a well-realized and understated persona. We realize that his penchant for never keeping his mouth closed is an effort on his part to compensate for the fact that – underneath – he’s just a frightened and shrill man that wants to live to see his dreams come true. Eddie easily gets under our skin, but that is a testament to the solid work of Mos Def for forging such a creation. His interplay with Mosley also dodges the buddy formulas for these types of pictures. They never grow to like one another (their relationship is never that clean cut and simply defend) but their own desperate impulses act as catalysts for them to work with each other.
With the deft and veteran hands of Richard Donner behind the camera and the layered and nuanced performances of Willis, Morse, and Mos Def, 16 BLOCKS is a smart and savvy thriller that works with undeniable fluidity. It takes the audience into highly familiar territory and lets the decent writing, intimate and atmospheric settings, and grounded and earthy performances steal the show. Willis himself reveals again how gifted he is a dialing down his characters for a more resonating and restrained effect. Beyond that, 16 BLOCKS is a sturdy, well-concocted cat and mouse police thriller that is fuelled by textured roles and character interplay before it lets the more incredulous action pieces grab a strangle hold. For that, the film is more thoughtful and emotionally driven than one would expect and it marks Donner’s most balanced and rock-solid work in the action/thriller arena since the first LETHAL WEAPON. Thankfully, this is a thriller with a heartbeat in an age where chaotic visuals pine for our affection.