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16 Blocks (2006)

February 15, 2013

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written by: Richard Wenck

produced by: Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, John Thompson, Arnold Rifkin and Jim Van Wyck

directed by: Richard Donner

rating: PG-13

runtime: 108 min.

U.S. release date: March 6, 2006

DVD & Blu-ray release date: June 13, 2006

 

Ever wake up in the morning and feel like you just can’t make it? I’m not talking about leaving the bed, I mean there’s just no making it through the day. Your eyes are heavy and dry. You’re body just aches all over. Every noise affects you. Well, that’s how New York City detective Jack Mosely, badge number 227, feels and he looks it too. Mosely is an paunchy, middle-aged cop with a bum leg who’s ready to retire. He feels that “life is too long” and seeks therapy from the bottom of a bottle. He’s written off by his peers as a man who has already quit.

Mosely (Bruce Willis) is forced into taking an upbeat yet down-on-his-luck witness “16 Blocks” from the police station to the courthouse over on 100 Centre Street. Sounds like a hassle, but it should be an easy job.  Right? Not quite. The witness is talkative cabbie and small-time felon, Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), who has to be taken to a courthouse in order to testify against corrupt cops before a grand jury.  He obviously doesn’t want him to get there and neither does Mosely. He’s aware how everyone else in the precinct perceive him and knows that walking escorting a weasel that can rat one of his own isn’t going to look good.

As soon as they get going though, all hell breaks loose. They run into problems at every turn and Moseby soon realizes that his former partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse) and a handful of other rogue officers are going out of their way to take out Eddie. If Jack gets in the way, so be it. This just ticks off Jack even more and as he and Eddie are both forced to do the right thing for the first in a long time, as one simple exercise becomes a challenging baptism of redemption.

 

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The concept seems simple enough, but the story emphasizes character over explosions, thankfully making “16 Blocks” an atypical action thriller. In a way, much of what veteran director Richard Donner (“Superman”, “The Goonies” and the “Lethal Weapon” movies) is doing here resembles something from the 70s that we’ve seen from William Friedkin (“The French Connection”) or Sidney Lumet (“Dog Day Afternoon”). Donner allows the actors to embody their characters with as much lived-in personality as possible. In fact, we almost forget about who’s playing who. He provides us with a different side of these two actors – Willis, an actor known mostly for his big-screen macho action – and Def, who’s known mostly for his hip-hop work.

Donner feels comfortable and confident, probably the most since 1997’s  “The Conspiracy Theory” another absorbing thriller. This is a spry old school yarn, similar in many ways to a classic Western tale. It helps that writer Richard Wenk (who’s last work with 1999’s “Just the Ticket”, which he also directed) doesn’t stereotype in a way that pulls us out of the film. Sure, it’s easy to find characters like Jack Mosely in cinematic history, but the characters lines don’t feel regurgitated from other movies. Of course, it helps that Willis has this role down, almost to an eerily unreal nature.

One could easily see John McClane ending up like this character about 5-10 years after “Die Hard: With a Vengeance”. He’s burned out and washed up. You can tell by his body language and see it in his eyes. In some ways, he recalls me of his work in “The Last Boy Scout” another great role, but mostly it’s a great reminder that Willis has range. If you’ll recall his work “In Country” or “Nobody’s Fool”, then you know what I mean. Willis is best when he’s playing characters that have given up on themselves but are put in a situation that forces them to wake up and do what is needed. This is the kind of Willis I like best, showing some variety yet also a cynical, almost pathetic character.

As for Mos Def, someone I hadn’t even known could act, well, his motor-mouth character is quite a surprise. When we’re first introduced to him, we may try to figure out what his deal is. Is he slow or mentally-challenged? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. He brings a specific and unique voice and speech pattern to the character of Eddie. It’s annoying and first, but we deal with it (as does Mosely) and becomes accustomed to it. We learn that Eddie is just like us and people we know. He’s made mistakes and he has talents and dreams. He may be one of those non-stop talkers who goes on and on about anything, thinking you’re interested, but at least he’s genuine. There’s a sincerity, a purity almost in Eddie that Mosely picks up on – and almost has empathy for, which calls Mosely to re-examine his own actions. We know right away that these two aren’t going to get along, it just helps matters that Eddie isn’t some wise-cracking hood.

 

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On the flipside, there’s Morse’s Nugent, who has his own reasons for winding up the way he is. Things obviously didn’t turn out the way he had expected and over the years, moral decay built up like plaque on his soul. He has his own justification though. The kind that sounds crazy to others, but completely sane to him and his kind. Nugent is almost apologetic for what he’s putting his former partner of nearly 20 years through now. It’s a dense and layered character for the ever-capable Morse to sink his acting chops into. The reliable character actor (“Contact” and “The Negotiator”, to name a few) is always a welcome presence on the screen and should never be taken for granted.

One particular standout scene involves these three characters meeting in a bar at the beginning of “the walk”. It takes place right after a jarring catalyst scene. Jack and Eddie are joined by Nugent and his gang in a kind of traditional standoff that sets the tone and pace for the rest of the movie. It’s an intense scene. One where you’re not quite sure how it’s going to go down, based on what we know of the characters so far. We watch as Nugent demeaningly pats Jack on the back and tries to take Eddie off his hands, but Jack knows something is up as he notices Eddie’s reaction to the encounter. He senses the palpable fear and tension and realizes he needs to see this through. It’s an expertly staged scene by Donner and reminds me why I’m such a huge fan.

As the movie progresses, the stakes increase as the director takes us through a congested Chinatown, over layered rooftops and busy streets. Donner never overuses his handheld camera work, using it to offer a live in-the-moment feel, instead of causing unnecessary nausea. He shooting style here is sure and stead and indeed well-suited to bring this noisy urban setting to the big-screen.

What makes the movie though is the back and forth between Willis and Def. Their enjoyable  interaction has a welcome depth and humor to it. Like the scene where Eddie enthusiastically tells Mosely that he has plans on opening up a bakery in Seattle where his sister lives, specializing in birthday cakes. “What kind of cake you like, man?” he asks Jack, who responds in annoyance, “I don’t like cake.” Eddie is dumfounded, “What? Who doesn’t like cake?” It’s moments like these that serve to balance out the gunfights and yelling between actors, offering them opportunities to shed a different light on characters we think we’ve seen before.

Ultimately, “16 Blocks” is less about police corruption and moreso about how good can sometimes survive in a bitter and rotten world and especially how redemption can be available when you least expect it.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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