16 Blocks

Mos DefLiteratureDrama (genre)Arts and CultureCrime, Law and JusticeCrimeBruce Willis

Richard Donner's "16 Blocks" is a bare-bones thriller with no time for extraneous surprises, character depth or action.

If "16 Blocks" had been made without stars, with a lower budget, without a recognizable and admired director, it might have played as an under-the-radar, down-and-dirty little treat, but the known quantities drag things down.

NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) isn't a good cop. A nihilistic drunk with no obvious assets to the force, Mosley is asked to go pick up a petty criminal named Eddie (Mos Def) and drive him from lock-up to the courthouse, a distance of 16 blocks, in 118 minutes. It seems like a doodle until some criminal types open fire on Mosley's car, suggesting to the grizzled vet that his cargo isn't just a normal witness. What should have been an easy job suddenly becomes a nearly real-time race against both a gang of crooked cops and the clock.

Screenwriter Richard Wenk has a few philosophical points he's trying to make, but he doesn't know how to integrate them into the necessary structure. Mos Def's Eddie is a pathetic excuse for a man, but he wants to change and believes that it's possible for people to transform. In contrast, Willis' Mosley is convinced that people are stuck in the same patterns, making the same choices and then they die. The movie has a similar theme to Donner's highly flawed but somewhat underrated existential hitman drama "Assassins," but that drama lacked the clock-watching time frame imposed by Wenk. Here, Wenk is forced to have his main characters monologue on the nature of human malleability at the most dramatically inopportune times.

Willis has never entirely mastered the art of softening his sarcastic charm without switching off his mental lights entirely. Mosley is a collection of physical and psychological infirmities -- he's a depressed, limping fatalist, think Hugh Laurie's House without the sense of humor. Then there's Eddie, a bundle of highstrung eccentricities, a fast-talking storyteller whose nervous repetitions make him seem autistic. Mos Def gives the guy a nasal voice that only makes matters worse, but I spent the entire movie repeating, "Thank heavens this part went to Mos Def and not to Orlando Jones, Eddie Griffin or Chris Tucker." The actors interact well, but neither character seems entirely human.

David Morse pops up as the David Morse-esque antagonist, augmented from previous roles only by a silly half-goatee.

With the "Lethal Weapon" franchise under his belt, Donner is has a pedigree when it comes to mismatched racial dramas involving unstable officers and (thanks in large part to cinematographer John Schwartzman) he also did interesting things with New York City in 1997's "Conspiracy Theory." Unfortunately, on "16 Blocks," Donner and current director of photography Glen MacPherson let Willis' sad-sack character dictate the visual style of the film. This is a dour, colorless depiction of the city, skipping urban realism for some kind of heightened action ennui that runs counter to the muscular editing, intense and intimate camerawork and supposedly pulse-pounding plot.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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