“Jack, I got no-one else. It's a nothing thing. One hundred and eighteen minutes to get a little haemorrhoid sixteen blocks.”
Richard Donner's new thriller has the simple premise of one aging, alcoholic New York cop given the relatively easy ride of escorting a petty criminal from the local precinct to the courthouse - a mere sixteen blocks away. It's a job that, even with numerous stops en route to stock up on painkillers and medication for a stomach ulcer, shouldn't take any longer than an hour. It should be a piece of cake, except for a couple of flies in the mixture. The criminal he is escorting is set to give evidence before a grand jury that will put a cartel of corrupt coppers behind bars and, most importantly, those corrupt coppers have no intention of letting him do that. Thus, the scene is set for a tense struggle through the crowded city streets and apartment blocks as one broken down man chooses to do the right thing for once and get the witness to court on time, even if it means fighting off guys he once thought of as colleagues and friends.
It is an age-old story, and has seen the light of day in westerns such as Rio Bravo, sci-fi films like Logan's Run and possibly hundreds of other contemporary thrillers from 48 Hrs to Midnight Run. It effectively straddles two sub-genres - the one last chance for a guy to make good, and the mismatched buddy-buddy saga of two total opposites coming together and, via a trial by fire, forging a bond that will see them lay their lives on the line for one another. Hell, Richard Donner actually took the template for cop duo movies by the scruff of the neck in the mid-eighties when he delivered Lethal Weapon to a concept-film-hungry audience. He even went on to dilute its shock-wave effect by churning out lame sequels to it, long after the original idea had soured. Yet, here he is, much further down the line with Bruce Willis essaying the cop with a newly-found conscience and Mos Def whining his way through a character-building session-under-fire as the criminal with the vital evidence. And, let's not forget that Willis, himself, is no stranger to reluctant cross-race relations, with The Last Boy Scout and Die Hard 3 under his belt.
“I believe life's too long ... and guys like you make it even longer.”
Willis is currently enjoying a return to form, even if that return means having to acknowledge the fact that he is not getting any younger. His heroic lawman from Hostage may still have been able to run, fight and shoot like a Special Forces soldier, but even Sin City's uber-avenger Hartigan had to contend with a heart condition and a body that would rather have stayed at home than have to indulge in bone-crunching brutality. Here, in the less-then-comfortable role of wheezing, ulcerated Detective Jack Mosley he has the odds stacked against him just escorting Mos Def's whining perp-cum-squealer the titular 16 blocks to the court, let alone doing it when seemingly the entire police precinct are mobbing the streets in an effort to take them out. Pausing every few struggling strides to gurgle medication, his bloodshot eyes weeping in the dusty, fume-filled air, this is Bruce Willis trying his damnedest to clear our minds out of images of Die Hard's John McClane. And, beneath a wispy thatch of yellowy-grey hair and a face-chewing lip-rug, he almost manages it. But, somehow, the early scenes chronicling his receipt of the assignment - puffing and panting as he climbs the stairs in the police station, vision glazing over as he fights to keep himself from collapsing - seem like pure pantomime. Despite the makeup, the added paunch and the pained expression, Bruce Willis just doesn't look that unfit. And when he pulls out his automatic and begins to blaze away, the spirit and the reflexes of the most famous vest-wearer of all time, John McClane, is exactly who springs to mind. But, to his credit, he still makes the role a sympathetic one. Jack Mosley is a guy we can definitely root for. He's making a self-sacrificial stand and, come hell or high water, this is his one last shot at redemption.
Donner is still a great director, even if 16 Blocks feels more like a filler-film in his career. His scene-setting is peerless, his handling of action and of the quieter, more tender moments is expert, and his ability to keep the formulaic buddy-buddy riff fresh and believable is a definite feather in his cap. The pacing of the film is a little off, though still piles on incident and revealtion without Donner resorting to the breathlessly relentless pursuit mix that a more MTV-minded filmmaker might have demanded. Set-pieces, such as the siege on the bus and the shootout in the sweat-shop are gripping, if increasingly outrageous, but what hampers the action are the frequent stops for goodie/baddie banter between Jack and his determined foe, and ex-partner Frank, who will stop at nothing to keep Def's small-time hood Eddie Bunker quiet. I know that the battlefield is limited to a relatively small area, and that Frank has the means to liberally cover it with his foot-soldiers, but there just seems to be too many instances when he catches up with his pill-popping nemesis for yet another moral debate about the rights and wrongs that one another has indulged in. Still, be sure to check out the John Woo homage that sees the two ex-partners converse from either side of a wall, whilst they both reload. This Face/Off-esque moment is further capped off when David Morse's Frank then indulges in a spot of two-gun, bullet-blasting ballet a la The Killer, Hardboiled or M-I:2. Always cool to see, though still derivative.
A great scene actually appears very early on when Frank and his nasty buddies arrive, ostensibly, like the US Cavalry to help Jack after he has thwarted the initial street ambush that set them on the run. We obviously know that these cops aren't here to protect and to serve anybody other than themselves, but Jack's slowly dawning realisation of the danger his charge is in and Frank's softly-spoken familiarity crank up the suspense with wonderfully downplayed conviction. In fact, this downplaying attitude of the film is precisely the attribute that marks it out from any number of other, more conventional cop thrillers. Just having Bruce Willis as an aging, out-of-condition hero is not enough of a hook to ensure that 16 Blocks will be remembered after the end credits have rolled by, nor the mismatched teaming of the world-weary, emotionally drained cop with the wisecracking, street persona of motor-mouth Mos Def's Eddie Bunker. (A lot of cinema-crims seem to go by that name, don't they?) But Donner, and screenwriter Richard Wenk have plumbed through the bleak, hard-hitting grit of 70's thrillers, such as Serpico, Busting and even Dirty Harry - although Eastwood's daft actioner The Gauntlet has more than its fair share of similarities, too - to fashion a sombre, thankless world that depicts the good guys as nothing but scumbags with badges. This first confrontation between Jack and Frank builds the story without resorting to time-wasting exposition but manages to convey the morals and motivations of the two men with measured and well-written dialogue and nicely gradual shifting of the chess pieces. The western is genre that the story takes its major cue from. Mosley is the old town sheriff, forced by duty and commitment to turn against his buddies and do what's right. The twisted allegiances and shattered loyalties are keenly felt as two old friends come to realise that the inevitable battle-lines have finally been drawn and that the last bridge has been burned.
“Hey, isn't that what you cops are supposed to say - Make a hole!”
I was hoping to avoid making references to Mos Def's nasal whining, having heard so many others complain about it, but I'm afraid it really is that bad. Although a likeable enough guy - certainly one whose performance in the film is good enough to have us warm to him - his voice is eminently irritating. When Bruce slides shut the window in his car to blot out his babbling, we are in total agreement. The scene in the bus, when Eddie makes friends with a gaggle of pseudo-hostages is incredibly gruelling to listen to, though. It isn't the overly schmaltzy dialogue between him and the little girl - it is just the sound of his dog-worrying voice droning on and on. But, even when this somewhat forced sequence of soul-discovery threatens to flat-line the film, the relentlessly grim and sober mood carries us through with gritty resolve. This pessimistic tone feels like a real departure for Donner, his evisceration of all humour taking the film to a darker yet, ultimately, less-satisfying level. Gone are the spectacle and awe of Superman and the free-wheeling fun of The Goonies - though these omissions should come as no surprise, given the nature of the film. But also conspicuously absent is the hair-trigger excitement of Lethal Weapon and the sympathy for the devil from The Omen. 16 Blocks, for its seriousness and ragged characters, is still Donner-lite - a Timeline for the thriller genre.
But there are many things that Donner gets right. The use of real New York locations is great, without being showy. In fact, the city streets could quite easily be anywhere, becoming a combat zone that Donner shoots like a home-grown Mogadishu, so chaotically Black Hawk Down are the feel of the crowded action scenes. The gunplay is fast and furious with a hard-edged dynamism that only a past-master at such ballistics can display. But you really have to suspend your disbelief when the bad cops engage in a hot foot-pursuit of Jack's speeding bus, putting down rounds with utterly wild abandon amongst the traffic and the pedestrians, so recklessly cavalier are they to drop their quarry. The film often comes across as a less satanic Race With The Devil, as the conspiracy to silence Eddie Bunker seems so far-reaching - mind you, every time he opens his mouth we all feel like silencing him. Although not especially violent, there is a moment when poor Eddie cowers in subdued terror at the arrival of those he is about to put the finger on, conjuring up a quiet dread that is numbingly palpable.
“When I started this day, I never figured I'd be trading 9mm's with my friend.”
David Morse is a fine actor. He may look like a cross between Simon Pegg and Russell Crowe, but he always turns in a good performance no matter how slight the role may be. His trademark ability to hold immense emotion locked within a stoic exterior, as in The Crossing Guard, Proof Of Life and The Green Mile, is in full effect here too. Far from being a simple bad cop, he makes his case pretty clear about the state of things on the street and the sad resort that he and some of his colleagues have sunk to. He's also pretty convincing in his dealings with Jack, instilling the fact that the pair were once very close friends and had been through thick and thin together. He would far rather have Jack out of this difficult equation but time is running out, the net is closing and desperate measures are called for. If his actions become too obvious, and events a little too black and white towards the end, then this is the fault of Richard Wenk dragging his script into a corner from which he cannot find a more compelling way out from. However, Morse and Willis make the best of it, even if the end result still disappoints. It is worth noting that the Alternative Ending doesn't do much to alter this vaguely anti-climactic conclusion, either.
The score by Hans Zimmer-protégé Klaus Badelt is reminiscent of his music for The Recruit, or John Powell's for the Bourne franchise, hi-tech synths fizzing about and electro-pulses sounding out the heartbeat of the film, although he does occasionally allow for some more traditional orchestral elements to put in an appearance.
So, ultimately, 16 Blocks is a bit of a letdown. But this is only because we have seen this type of thing done a lot better many times before. The characters are brought to life by seasoned pros like Willis and Morse, but the whole scenario ends up leaving you with a kind of “so what?” feeling towards it. Which is doubly unfortunate given Richard Donner's pedigree.
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