The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, October 28, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - 16 Blocks

Originally published 3/4/06
Full review behind the jump

16 Blocks

: Richard Donner
: Richard Wenk
: Jim Van Wyck, John Thompson, Arnold Rifkin, Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett
: Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse, Jenna Stern, Casey Sander, Cylk Cozart, David Zayas

It’s been 18 years now since Bruce Willis staked his claim to superstardom in
Die Hard, so he easily qualifies as an old pro by now. And director Richard Donner’s resume stretches all the way back to the 50’s, and classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. Remarkable that it’s taken this long for them to do a feature together, but the veteran savvy they bring to 16 Blocks makes it worth the wait.

Here we have a classic contraption thriller, a high concept with clear boundaries and rules that tests the filmmakers to deliver the goods while playing fair to the audience, and tests the actors to professionally essay their roles so they don’t turn into crash test dummies swept along in the kinetics. Its polish and success within those terms is a credit to Donner, Willis, an ingenious script by Richard Wenk, plus the performance by Mos Def in what is the key emotional role in the story.

You can see those 18 extra years that Willis carries around without concealment. Detective Jack Mosley is not the cocky and fit young Detective John McClain of
Die Hard – he’s gray, he limps, his belly strains the buttons of his shirt, and he huffs and trudges everywhere like all he can think is that when he gets wherever he’s going, it won’t be any improvement on where he came from. Unless maybe there’s whiskey around.

But for all the physical differences there’s an important similarity to the two roles, one that lines up neatly with Willis’ star appeal over the years. He and his characters are at their best when they know they’re outmatched, when they don’t
want this fight, because from a self-preservation standpoint it is not wise to carry on. But…but…but…something inside won’t let them walk away. Detective Jack Mosley is a man who hasn’t done the right thing in a long time, but today, for reasons we’re continuing to understand until the movie’s final minutes, some memory of how a cop is supposed to be swims up from his instincts and he acts on it.

At the end of a long night of thankless tasks he’s handed another, drive Eddie Bunker (Def), a kid in lockup, 16 blocks to the courthouse, where he is to testify to a Grand Jury and thus escape punishment from the charges against him. The Jury expires at 10 am – so if he doesn’t make it there, the case falls apart. And you don’t need to be a screenwriting guru to predict that there are parties interested in him not making it.

Eddie is a hard guy for Jack to like – he talks in a near uninterrupted rapid-fire squeak, and it’s a lot to ask of Jack to summon the focus and patience to even understand what he’s saying. The surface of Eddie is just another street hustler, another parole violator. But then Jack suddenly notices that Eddie has stopped talking, and it’s in that moment that Jack understands the stakes and the odds against him. And though he has every reason in the world to say it’s not his problem, to take a drink, to walk away and live for another day, he does what you want to see Bruce Willis do – but it’s in the body of Jack Mosley, so it’s going to be harder than ever.

Scattered around the urban jungle between them and the courthouse are a squad of crooked cops, led by Jack’s ex-partner, the amoral and silver-tongued Nugent (David Morse). These are not spring chickens, either, they’re middle-aged, overweight, mileage and experience on their faces. But it’s that experience that’s so dangerous – how many resources they have to track Jack and Eddie, how many ways they can conceal the truth, how swiftly they can converge on a building from all sides.

Donner never really pulls back far enough to give us a real sense of the geography involved – he stays street-level and tight. His intent is to not give us any better perspective than our heroes would have. And though it does verge on the ridiculous how little word spreads about the increasing carnage moving up the streets, since the movie plays out essentially in real time, you can almost believe that the sheer speed of unfolding events keeps ahead of it.

It’s a symphony of differing tempos – Jack’s gradually-melting lethargy (“We have to get to him before he gets his legs back under him” Nugent urges), Eddie’s manic neediness and ambition, and the contrast between frightening, sudden violence and quiet moments where the opponents stop to breathe and consider how to out-think each other in the next stretch. We progress through bars, crowded sidewalks, rooftops, a Chinese laundry, a commandeered city bus, and the clock just keeps ticking, and along the way we keep learning more about Jack Mosley’s career of ever-deepening shame, and the openness and optimism of Eddie Bunker. Mos Def proves himself, once again, to be the most delicate, creative and essentially sympathetic of rappers-turned-actors. If we didn’t look at him and demand of Bruce Willis – how can you not help him in his hour of need?, then 16 Blocks would fail as a movie. It succeeds.


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