16 Blocks

UK release date: 28 April 2006

cast list
Mos Def
Bruce Willis
David Morse

directed by
Richard Donner

Mos Def is one brave actor. As Eddie, a small-time convict and big-time Grand Jury witness in this new Richard Donner film, he comes across as an annoyingly motor-mouthed, nasal-voiced dimwit.

Yet for the film to work, he also has to be someone that that the audience likes and roots for. He has to be worth all the trouble that revolves around him. That he pulls this off is something of an acting miracle.

16 Blocks manages to be engaging despite feeling very familiar. It falls into several clichéd film categories, yet is not completely confined or defined by them. It is a dirty cop film, but we see early on that the difference between the dirty cops and the hero of the piece is initially only a matter of degree and later a matter of choice.

Director Richard Donner, who also helmed Lethal Weapon, has the mismatched buddy film genre down cold. But the buddies here are mismatched in different and more interesting ways than most. The convict, Eddie, is an innocent; the cop, Jack (Bruce Willis), is anything 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. He’s an alcoholic, run-down cop, beaten by life and weary of living, doing nothing more than marking time. 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 that no other cops want and that he is unlikely to be able to mess up too badly. We learn this in the opening scenes when, while guarding a crime scene, he uses the opportunity to search the cabinets for booze. When he returns to the police 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 assigned one more task. He must transport Eddie a distance of 16 city blocks to the courthouse to testify before the Grand Jury. They have two hours to get there before the jury disbands at the end of its term, but it soon becomes clear that there are a lot of people trying to stop them.

When Jack stops off at a nearby liquor store for a liquid breakfast, leaving his charge handcuffed in the car, someone who has been following them tries to kill Eddie. Showing that he still has some intact brain cells and reflexes despite the alcohol, Jack saves his life.

Under pressure, Jack retreats to a familiar haven, a local bar, and calls for backup. When reinforcements arrive, Eddie is suddenly awfully nervous. We can tell that something has truly rattled him because he finally quits talking for a few moments. Soon we learn that he is testifying in a case 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 primary player in the corrupt police ring, and one of the people who wants to keep Eddie from testifying. Now Jack has a choice to make: let Frank and the others kill Eddie and then go on with his own miserable life with nothing changed except for an added dose of self-loathing? Or do the right thing (if indeed it is the right thing) and throw his lot in with an annoying near-stranger? There are deeper 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 good performances all around. Jack is cynical, world-weary, and corrupt, but Willis convinces us that the spark of determination and defiance it takes to do what he does is real. Morse deftly plays Frank as evil, disguised by a veneer of logic and officiousness. Mos Def subtly lets us see that Eddie’s non-stop chatter 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’t believable enough or seemed too contrived. On the whole, though, this film was definitely worth its popcorn. Let’s hope that 16 Blocks is part of a trend; action movies that thrive on plot and character not just CGI absurdity and macho swagger.

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