Mos Def is one brave actor. As Eddie, a small-time convict and big-timeGrand Jury witness in this new Richard Donner film, he comes across as anannoyingly motor-mouthed, nasal-voiced dimwit.
Yet for the film to work, he also has tobe someone that that the audience likes and roots for. He has to be worth allthetrouble that revolves around him. That he pulls this off is something of anacting miracle.
16 Blocks manages to be engaging despite feeling very familiar. Itfalls into several clichd film categories, yet is not completely confined ordefinedby them. It is a dirty cop film, but we see early on that the differencebetween the dirty cops and the hero of the piece is initially only a matterof degree and later a matter of choice.
Director Richard Donner, who alsohelmed Lethal Weapon, has the mismatched buddy film genre down cold.Butthe buddies here are mismatched in different and more interesting ways thanmost. The convict, Eddie, is an innocent; the cop, Jack (Bruce Willis), isanything but. It’s also a thriller, but it tweaks convention here too,pacing the action to suit the story rather than the other way around.
Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is far from pure. Hes an alcoholic, run-downcop, beaten by life and weary of living, doing nothing more than markingtime. The New York City police precinct where he works acts as his co-dependent,helping him get through his disappointing days by assigning him tasks thatno other cops want and that he is unlikely to be able to mess up too badly. Welearn this in the opening scenes when, while guarding a crime scene, he usesthe opportunity to search the cabinets for booze. When he returns to thepolice station, a co-worker helpfully provides him with breath mints.
It’s the end of Jack’s all-night shift and he’s tired, but he is assignedonemore task. He must transport Eddie a distance of 16 city blocks to thecourthouse to testify before the Grand Jury. They have two hours to getthere before the jury disbands at the end of its term, but it soon becomes clearthat there are a lot of people trying to stop them.
When Jack stops off at anearby liquor store for a liquid breakfast, leaving his charge handcuffedin the car, someone who has been following them tries to kill Eddie. Showingthat he still has some intact brain cells and reflexes despite the alcohol, Jacksaves his life.
Under pressure, Jack retreats to a familiar haven, a local bar,andcalls for backup. When reinforcements arrive, Eddie is suddenly awfullynervous. We can tell that something has truly rattled him because he finallyquits talking for a few moments. Soon we learn that he is testifying in acase involving corrupt cops, including those who just arrived to “help” him.Uh-oh.
Frank (David Morse), Jack’s former partner of 20 years, is a primaryplayer in the corrupt police ring, and one of the people who wants to keep Eddiefrom testifying. Now Jack has a choice to make: let Frank and the otherskill Eddie and then go on with his own miserable life with nothing changed exceptfor an added dose of self-loathing? Or do the right thing (if indeed it istheright thing) and throw his lot in with an annoying near-stranger? There aredeeper questions being asked, too: is redemption possible? And if so,when does it become too late?
In addition to Mos Def’s attention grabbing turn as Eddie, there are goodperformances all around. Jack is cynical, world-weary, and corrupt, butWillis convinces us that the spark of determination and defiance it takes to dowhat he does is real. Morse deftly plays Frank as evil, disguised by a veneer oflogic and officiousness. Mos Def subtly lets us see that Eddie’s non-stopchatter is his way of dealing with insecurity, fear and low self-esteem.
There are a few scenes, such as one involving ambulances and portions of an extended sequence with hostages in a bus, that simply weren’tbelievable enough or seemed too contrived. On the whole, though, this filmwasdefinitely worth its popcorn. Let’s hope that 16 Blocks is part oftrend; action movies that thrive on plot and character not just CGI absurdity andmacho swagger.