3 out of 5
Directed by: Richard Donner
2006 was a weird crossing over point for film, and for Bruce Willis in film, and sort of the end of 16 Blocks’ director Richard Donner’s directorial career for a good chunk of time… and this is all reflected in the weird blend of DTV aesthetics and a big budget “vibe” in the aforementioned flick, which features Willis as yet another retired cop, escorting I-saw-some-dirty-cops-do-bad-things witness Mos Def to a court appearance about 90 minutes away, which happens to mostly coincide with the film’s runtime.
The repeated role casting for Bruce isn’t really a problem in and of itself, as the dude had offered some truly quality performances as variations on this theme up to this point, and pairing him with a known quantity as a director boded well. Donner at the helm also wasn’t really a warning bell, nor was it a guaranteed win: Donner was coming off of Timeline, a sci-fi bomb, but his career had plenty of ups and downs, and, again, his presence here was encouraging – a NY-centric flick from a dude who’s delivered on action, with an actor who can deliver it.
But as I said: 2006 was kinda weird. Comic book movies were still trying to become a thing, but we were full in to this concept of everything needing to be a trilogy by this point – the Spider-Man movies, Shrek, the Pirates movies – and live action had moved beyond the confines of crappy CG to larger and larger spectacle, making this one of the last few years where movies like 16 Blocks – modestly budgeted, not-so-large-spectacled flicks – had a place in theaters. While Bruce would continue to pick and choose some large movies to appear in, we were only a few years away from his commitments to Emmet / Furla productions, guaranteeing a steady stream of fairly poor DTV flicks in which the actor said some lines (often as a retired cop) and then went back to bed. Richard Donner would disappear as a director, until something that had a big screen hook – a return to the Lethal Weapon franchise! – would start to get floated around.
Ebert liked 16 Blocks – and I like Ebert – but I’ve never had much success with it, from my first theater viewing to subsequent ones. It has a lot of potential in that it gives Willis a really juicy role, spinning the retired cop shtick in to a really retired cop – out of shape, alcoholic, a few steps away from being on the take – that called on the actor’s character acting a bit (think Death Becomes Her), which is something that’s been fun to see him do, but that hadn’t been previously employed in a dramatic role. And he sells it well in the initial scenes, lumbering up stairs, totally tuned out. It’s when he’s paired with Mos Def that it starts to feel inconsistent.
Here’s a memory to which I think many of us can relate: being incredibly excited about Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins; being floored by the casting of Christian Bale; being wowed by the intensity of the film’s buildup and patience with the origin of the character. …And then stifling embarrassment when Bale employed his growly “Bat voice.” I get what they were going for, but to this day, I cannot believe that everyone involved in the flick actually thought that was a good idea.
And that same thing happens with Mos Def in 16 Blocks. Def’s character is a motormouthed con named Eddie Bunker, and the dude pitches his voice in this completely distracting, nasal tone that just… sounds like someone doing an impression. It’s never a real voice. And every single time I’ve watched 16 Blocks, I’m struck with that Batman response: who thought this was a good idea? Unfortunately, I feel like Def’s overactive pantomime then encouraged Willis to match it, and his old fogey cop presentation starts to feel like a pretty surface level act as well. When David Morse shows up as the crooked cop who’s tangential to the one that Bunker is needed to snitch on, and thus wants Willis’ character to look the other way while they make sure Bunker never testifies, well of course he has this crazy shadow-universe goatee, and suddenly Richard Donner is seeming pretty out of touch as a director.
Some quality action – if rather low-key – does occur, when Willis inevitably makes the shift from lazy cop to gives-a-shit cop, and there are moments when both he and Def drop their respective shticks and the movie, temporarily, becomes pretty compelling! …Though of course, that also makes it pretty inconsistent.
Escorting Mos Def across packed NY streets to his destination requires some fuzzy logic that doesn’t have the benefit of huge, distracting explosions or late hour plot twists. It allows for some rather craftsmen type work from Donner and Willis, and thus maintains a spot in the “average” pile of Bruce movies, but it’s ultimately more interesting as a relic of a particularly odd point in time for movies and for some of the people involved.