starring Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse, Cylk Cozart
screenplay by Richard Wenk
directed by Richard Donner
by Walter Chaw There's a lot to like about Richard Donner's ultimately simpering retread of the long-dormant corrupt-cop/asphalt-jungle genre 16 Blocks. Among the highlights is Bruce Willis's drunken, crooked detective Jack, who--sporting a pot belly, a gimpy leg, bad facial hair, flop sweat, and breath you can practically smell through the screen--makes a decision early on to be the hero at odds with ex-partner Frank (David Morse) in transporting his charge Eddie (Mos Def) the titular sixteen city blocks so that Eddie can testify against New York's finest. Standing in their way: an arbitrary time limit and a whole department of collectors for the widows and orphans club, looking to exact a little Giuliani on the suddenly-vigilante pair. Comparisons to Firewall, that other picture buried in the first quarter 2006 starring an over-the-hill tough guy, are inevitable--and revealing, too, in charting the extent to which ego allows Ford and Willis to age as action heroes (Ford: not at all; Willis: a good bit) and, consequently, how successful these films are in crafting their respective scenarios. The standard against which 16 Blocks will be held, however, is one established by the likes of Prince of the City and Serpico (or even a later Sidney Lumet like Q&A)--it's they to which Donner clearly aspires, what with the picture's setting, its admittedly spurious exposé of bad apples on the force, and at least the first hour of Willis's performance, equal parts broken-down gunsel and brown-bagging wino.
The action is sedate, the tension predicated mostly on intercutting Jack and Eddie on the lam with Frank and his henchmen on the scent, and the script pedestrian--but Willis and Mos Def have a real rapport, and their scenes together are unaffected and bright. The best single moment of the film, though, might be Eddie crying alone in the bathroom. If 16 Blocks were only as observant as this for the rest of its running time, had only focused in on the humanity and fear of its unwilling heroes and their Logan's Run plight in which all the representatives of order are poisoned by a crooked ideology. But it lowers itself instead, too soon and too often, to long expository exchanges between Jack and Frank, to clumsy visual metaphors (walls, elevators), to two or three too many trick moments where a gunshot shoots a surprise target or baddies knock down the wrong door, and most egregiously, to an ending so Pollyannaish that I expected a chorus of animated daisies to jump out of somebody's ass.
Since 16 Blocks doesn't know what to do with its high concept, it decides to crack jokes about Barry White while adhering to a mantra of how a leopard can, in fact, change its spots. (How much more interesting would this picture have been if a leopard could not, in fact, change its spots?) It's a film ruined by its complete lack of conviction and follow-through--that chooses to infuse itself with some slack pseudo-mysticism about "signs" seen by wall-of-noise Eddie rather than anchor itself to the bedrock of societal decay and absolute corruption. Here, a well-conceived hostage situation on a crowded city bus becomes representative of the rest of the picture's failings: Veteran cop Jack knows how to work the situation to his advantage, veteran prisoner Eddie understands the peril of being re-arrested, and then, suddenly, there's an adorable little girl, a white business man humiliated, and an impossible situation remedied in a semi-literal deus ex machina that renders the entire sequence pointless. 16 Blocks is a missed opportunity. The settings are excellent and the set-ups are pretty good, too, and for long stretches, Willis and Mos Def make you very forgiving about the precariousness of their high-wire act. But then it gets desperate and goes soft. It's all well and good that Eddie wants to be a baker and Jack wants to be a good guy, but when the film actually lets them, it completes this gritty, dark, urban crime drama's evolution into a campfire love-in to which all the middlebrow are invited. It's Donner's resurrection of his Lethal Weapon franchise. I guess we should be glad, at least, that it's not his Timeline. Originally published: March 3, 2006.