So much drama in the NYC: 16 Blocks

by Glen Baity

One oft-forgotten truism of cinema (that I am, in effect, making up on the spot) is also one we’d do well to remember (or learn) in this most talked about and controversy-laden Oscar season in years. It’s a rule that might give you solace if you’re turned off by all the hubbub surrounding gay cowboys, alleged terrorist sympathizers, and uppity journalists of the ‘“Leave it to Beaver’” era.

That rule: no matter what’s going on in the world, there’s always room for a decent action flick.

Enter 16 Blocks, the latest from Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner. It doesn’t want to change your life, alter your perceptions in any fundamental way or lobby for red carpet distinction. It only wants to entertain, and after all is said and done, it does the job.

Bruce Willis plays Jack Mosley, a 10 a.m. drunk who uses his job as an NYPD detective to coast through the last years of his tenure in law enforcement. His co-workers have low expectations for him, but he’s not yet negligent enough in his duties to get fired. Jack lives a comfortably unimpressive, miserable existence, and his job description seems to amount to ‘“try not to screw this up too badly.’”

It therefore comes as no surprise to him when he’s asked to transport a prisoner, squirrely, motor-mouthed Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) a short distance from the police station to a trial at which the inmate is a key witness for the prosecution. When a virtual army of plainclothes cops starts taking aim at Eddie, Jack must sober up long enough to keep his charge alive and undamaged enough to testify.

It’s good setup, and the follow-through, while imperfect, is still entertaining. 16 Blocks is essentially an extended chase, and its construction, while not airtight, is certainly enough to keep you interested. Eddie and Jack gain a believable appreciation for one another as the story moves along, and it’s fun to watch their shaky camaraderie develop.

This, of course, is all thanks to the two leads. Wills’s Jack is played with a subdued, sad-eyed defeatism he hasn’t captured this well since Unbreakable, and even if his character seems to have been written as a cliché (right down to the department-issue moustache), Willis finds the human side in his interpretation. It’s easy to root for this character, which is essential to a film like 16 Blocks.

But the real prize performance, as usual, belongs to Mos Def. A stalwart supporting character since his turn in Monster’s Ball, he carries this film with the ease of a veteran. Already one of the best rappers in the known universe (check out Black on Both Sides if you don’t believe me), he is slowly developing a resume of terrific and eclectic film performances that show off the best of his considerable talent. Eddie is a classic stoolie, jittery and annoying, but the character is just so damned likeable, and Mos Def plays off Willis’ sad stoicism flawlessly.

The likeability factor of the two stars is enough to distract from the occasional plot hole. The film follows Jack and Eddie through a Byzantine path of back alleys, rooftops and basements on their way to the courthouse, avoiding danger at every turn. About 45 minutes into this pursuit, however, the logic feels a little strained. Call me a charlatan, but I’ve seen enough cop movies to know that a police officer can flash his badge on a busy street and hail a cab, a lesson Willis’ character must have missed while he was drinking his way through the police academy.

The bad guys in the film also suffer a bit from Michael Myers syndrome ‘– they turn up everywhere, in places and ways that demonstrate an almost supernatural prescience. No matter where Jack and Eddie go, there they are, and while that’s meant to be suspenseful, it becomes its own kind of predictable. Still, David Morse should get credit for an excellent performance as the crooked, calculating mastermind behind the assassination plot.

Lastly, the ending is schmaltzy and predictable, and since the denouement is so obviously foreshadowed throughout the entire film, it’s kind of a drag to see it played out exactly as you thought it would be. 16 Blocks is, through and through, a serviceable, fun thriller, but its quality is such that a killer ending might have made it more enduring and distinguishable than its peers in the genre. It’ll have to stand as just another good time, but that’s not such a bad thing.

I suspect that, like a lot of Donner’s films, it’ll be common in a year or two to see 16 Blocks on TNT every five minutes, and it will fit well there. It’s fun, light on exposition, and has enough brains to set it a level above many films of its ilk. More importantly, it could launch Mos Def into the stratosphere, where he deserves to be, and it proves that Willis can still make hay out of that jaded cop thing almost 20 years and a million movies after Die Hard. Surprisingly solid throughout, 16 Blocks might be the first good popcorn flick of 2006.

Glen Baity hearts Mos, and you should too. Explain why or why not when you e-mail him at