16 Blocks

There are certain aspects of the movie making industry which Hollywood has mastered. There are plenty of good actors to go around, and cinematographers almost always manage to get their jobs done well. When it comes to screenwriters and directors, there is a bit of a bear market. Out of this situation comes 16 Blocks, a decent action flick which suffers where most movies suffer, and is strong where movies typically are strong.

The Story
Richard Donner’s latest opus covers territory similar to that of his Lethal Weapon series. Detective Jack Mosley, played by Bruce Willis, is given the seemingly routine task of transporting Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), a petty thief determined to change his ways, to a court hearing before the jury’s tenure ends at 10:00 am. It is a mere sixteen blocks away, and he has 118 minutes to get there. But the seemingly ordinary assignment quickly proves to be anything but.

Detective Mosley, a worn out and worn down officer outranked by younger men who seems to be just putting in time at work to get a paycheck to support his drinking habit, makes a stop on the way to court to purchase some spirits. It is at this moment when a group of men who have been suspiciously lurking about decide to assassinate Eddie Bunker, but Mosley arrives in time to thwart their plans.

Breathing hard from the exertion, Mosley takes Bunker to the bar of a man he knows and calls for backup. He starts drinking, but when the backup arrives in the form of Frank Nugent (David Morse), his erstwhile partner of twenty years, it soon becomes obvious that Eddie Bunker has been targeted for execution by the police themselves.

Jack Mosley, out of shape with a bad leg and looking sickly from lack of sleep and too much drink, is the most improbable hero one could imagine. This of course means that he jumps in and saves Bunker from execution and the two spend most of the rest of the movie trying to evade the police and to get to the courthouse before the end of the jury’s tenure.

The Acting
The acting is the bright spot in the movie. Bruce Willis, perennially underrated, adeptly portrays a worn out wino going from middle age to old age. Everything from his delivery to his body language is spot on. It is all the more impressive when contrasted with a small section of the film where we see Mosley in better times. He sits straighter, he displays more swagger and does it subtly enough that its effect is almost subconscious at first.

Mos Def does no worse with his role, choosing an eccentric delivery which provides some comic relief without going overboard. David Morse, in an unremarkable part, makes the most of it with his fine screen presence, and the other smaller roles are more than adequate for the film.

The Final Cut
Yet another Hollywood product with great production values and solid acting that falls short elsewhere and ultimately loses the chance to be a fine film. Though generally the scenes on their own are well shot and directed, played together they don’t move the way they should. There is too much down time when the momentum should be building, something that a healthy trimming at the editor’s might help. For a movie with as many fired shots and crushed automobiles as this one has, there should definitely be a steady buildup of momentum which explodes into a third act to make our hearts pulse. Though it has its moments, the movie does not accomplish what it should in this respect.

In addition to the flow of the movie, the script is unremarkable. Also, though a fun action movie like this does not need to have a great script to keep it afloat, the story, which can’t make all the actors’ actions and motivations fit with the surprise twist near the end, does spring a few leaks. Some of the action sequences are a bit over the top for a movie which at first seems to be going for some realism, and there is the always popular overuse of cloying music to instruct viewers as to how they should be feeling during touching, emotional scenes when the movie, at that particular moment, would be better served with no score at all.

One additional criticism is warranted. Though veteran director Richard Donner is capable enough for the most part, there are moments when he displays a weakness which often seems to separate good directors from great ones. Specifically I am speaking of directing the crowds of people and minor characters with no name in the credits, a flaw most obviously seen in the bus scene. Donner lapses into a sort of lazy directing in which the various bit parts behave in any way which makes it easier to progress through the scene, whether those actions are logical or not. He does not treat each person as an individual, but rather as scenery and they behave not as individuals would, but as one collective for the ease of shooting the scene. Contrast the bus scene in 16 Blocks to, how often am I going to use this scene as the gold standard?, the liquidation of the ghetto in Schindler’s List. Or just about any scene in Saving Private Ryan.

Still, despite its flaws, the movie manages to entertain. There is nothing about it that is poorly done, save perhaps for the internal logic of the script itself, and there is enough that is good to be worth a view until V for Vendetta is released.

The Upside:
Acting and production values. The individual scenes are shot well, and the story is a serviceable one out of which to squeeze some good action and suspense.
The Downside:
The movie takes too much time to pause rather than allow momentum to build. The script’s internal logic is flawed, and the music is sometimes overused to tell us how to feel. Also, the bus scene went too far over the top in terms of action while also displaying a lack of attention to detail with respect to the bit parts involved in the scene.
On the Side:
Bruce Willis’ character, Jack Mosley, is, intentionally or not, a composite of two characters from Midnight Run, a movie with a similar theme. The namesakes are Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) and Alonzo Mosley (Yaphet Kotto).

Making the Grade:
The Story: C-
The Acting: B
The Intangibles: C+
Overall: C+

Tags: Movies, Film, Entertainment, Action, Drama, Suspense