2006Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse
schewing Bruckheimerian excess, 16 Blocks seems retro. Compared to 2006's critically legitimized good cop/bad cop movie, The Departed, it's smaller, gentler and approximately as good. The action, playing out nearly in real time, stars Bruce Willis as Jack Mosley, the cop assigned to take criminal witness Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the grand jury hearing where Eddie is due to testify in a couple of hours. As you'd guess, there are people who don't want Eddie to make it there.
Director Richard Donner would likely find Scorsese's work garish, and although he may not end up in anyone's pantheon, he still constructs cool images, like a window cleanly pierced by a bullet hole, then shattered by the gunman's head. Donner, now in his mid-seventies, has kept up with technology better than most directors and also retained command of the conventional. So he ends a bullet-time slo-mo with an old school fade into a close-up. He expends resources on neither plodding literalism nor cheap irony. Barry White ostensibly appears on the soundtrack to support the script's trite message about destiny, but I suspect Donner just misses the guy.
Donner's Manhattan is filled with posters telling citizens to narc on suspected terrorists and bad construction. The Chinatown setting is used mostly for color, but what color! One enthralling sequence sees Jack and Eddie flee through a huge basement, a maze of laundry and immigrant workers who barely acknowledge the bleeding men running past. The centerpiece of the movie is a hostage drama on a suitably multiethnic bus, which leads us to the film's most plausible Inspirational Moment. It’s too much for us to believe in the kindness of strangers, but easy to believe in the kindness of friends.
Fine as the supporting cast is (particularly David Morse as Jack's ex-partner), it's a two-man movie. For his part, Willis, once the sharpest of action heroes, works without vanity, and wisely so. To ensure everyone's clear that he's acting old and not just being old, he adds on an extra ten years. He sports a receding hairline, wrinkles, and an unflattering 'stache; early on, his every step seems to require more effort than he wants to put in. The script calls for him to start out as tired as his genre, and then rise to the occasion one last time. Efficiency wins.
Mos Def is one of many rappers who, after turning to acting, has revealed reserves of charisma not always apparent in hip-hop careers. But unlike Cube, Luda, Will Smith, and Marky Mark, Mos Def acted as a teenager and this experience affects his approach to movies. The black convict who's really a softie—aww, he wants to be a baker—is at best a fictional archetype and at worst a liberal fantasy. Mos Def could've sleepwalked through the role, but that would've been lazy. So he blusters up a fury of tics and riddles, which serve mostly to disguise how good he is at playing the softie. The sentimentality is an act, but the humanity is not.
Mos Def's voice is the only aspect of 16 Blocks that seems inefficient. His whine, all throat and nose, sounds like Dave Chappelle—with the confidence sucked out, if not the life. Initially moderately irritating, his motormouth becomes background noise, a noisy appliance you soon stop noticing. And even this obnoxious timbre becomes part of the hero's arsenal and the story. To Richard Donner, waste is the worst crime.
16 Blocks is now available on DVD.
By: Brad Luen
Published on: 2007-02-01