16 Blocks (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When I think of director Richard Donner, my mind gravitates toward titles like Superman and Lethal Weapon - high points in the filmmaker's career. Recently, however, Donner's output has been less impressive, and includes the bloated excess of Assassins and the awfulness of Timeline. Sadly, 16 Blocks is not a film to recall the glory days. It's a cobbled together mess of clich├ęs that fails to surprise at any of its turns. Despite occasional bursts of suspense, the movie as a whole plays out as a long 95 minutes, with its lack of inventiveness leading us more frequently into tediousness than tension.

16 Blocks is a high concept movie: a broken-down cop (Bruce Willis) is charged with taking a criminal/witness (Mos Def) on a 16 block trip through New York City, from a police lockup to a courthouse. Along the way, they become targets of dirty cops (led by David Morse) who are anxious to silence the witness. Plus, there's a time element. If the testimony doesn't happen by 10:00 am, the Grand Jury will be disbanded and the cops will be free. Once could see how this premise could result in a white-knuckle thriller. Or a bore of a retread. 16 Blocks comes closer to the latter.

Take the Bruce Willis character, for example. Jack Mosley is an overweight, aging, alcoholic detective with a checkered past. He appears to be on the verge of having a heart attack. This guy's the oldest stereotype in the cop movie book. Willis' performance is competent, but the character is hackneyed. Mos Def plays Eddie Bunker like a typical motormouth. This is another generic character - the criminal with the heart of gold. All he really wants to do is move to Seattle and run a cake bakery. Of course, over the 90 minutes (or thereabouts) they're together, they become lifelong chums. That's the way it goes with movies like this. In the Lethal Weapon series, Donner was able to fashion a credible friendship between two mismatched individuals. In trying to work something similar in 16 Blocks, he takes too many shortcuts.

The most interesting character in the film is David Morse's Frank Nugent, perhaps because Morse puts more energy into his portrayal than Willis and Def combined. Bad guys are always more fun, but this is a case when you almost find yourself rooting for them. Of course, the film does all it can to turn them into caricatures except dress them in black. At every opportunity, we're given another chance to see that they are Not Nice Men. Shades of gray don't mean much in simplistic movies like this.

I could remark about 16 Blocks' assault on the viewer's credulity, but it has bigger problems. There's no chemistry between Jack and Eddie (not surprising, since the characters just met). The ending demands stupidity and a loud mouth by Frank, and involves one of the most tired tricks in the "open mouth, insert foot" book. If you don't see this coming, you should be ashamed of yourself. It's as obvious and telegraphed as most of the other plot points in this movie.

To be fair, Donner manages to sneak in occasional scenes that build some suspense. There's the initial showdown in the bar which, in a more complex movie, might lead us to believe it could go either way. The bus/hostage crisis also works, although it had me remembering how much more exciting things were in Speed. I guess that's the difference between a vehicle careening around city streets at 55 mph and one standing still.

It takes about 90 minutes to make this particular 16 block trip. On some days in New York, that's par for the course. Next time, take the subway.

16 Blocks (United States, 2006)

Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse
Screenplay: Richard Wenk
Cinematography: Glen MacPherson
Music: Klaus Badelt
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2006-03-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1