"16 Blocks" sets a ruminative, low-key tone at its onset, calling to mind 2001's underrated gem, "The Pledge
," which starred Jack Nicholson as a recently retired police veteran whose alcoholism is slowly catching up to him. In general terms, the film was a serial killer suspenser, and an expertly conceived one at that, but its deeper origins were that of a richly textured and poignant character study of an aging, lonely soul whose sudden chance at starting a better life is threatened before it hardly begins. "16 Blocks" shares few similarities with "The Pledge
"the premise is completely different and there is no serial killerbut the introduction of hard-drinking NYPD investigator Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) called vividly to mind Nicholson's role. Mosley may not be retiring, but he might as well be, the depression and solitude he experiences leaving him worn out on the job and with no better known option than to hit the bottle every chance he gets.
Following this deliberately paced and admittedly engrossing opening, "16 Blocks" eliminates all superficial ties to "The Pledge
" and becomes a merely dull and unoriginal police drama, as washed up as Jack Mosley and never differentiating itself from the most mediocre of "Law & Order" episodes. The premise, which has been seen countless times before and done with far more style and flair, is terribly thin. Mosley, an overworked and barely functioning alcoholic, is forced into escorting talkative criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) sixteen blocks, from police custody to the city courthouse, so that he can testify before the grand jury. In exchange for his own freedom, Eddie will end up implicating a number of cops in a murder casean action that dirty ringleader Frank Nugent (David Morse) refuses to let happen. For Eddie and Jack, the sixteen-block trek is about to get a whole lot longer.
Directed by Richard Donner (2003's "Timeline
"), a once-great filmmaker who has recently had a spell of bad luck, "16 Blocks" can't even get out of first gear. If the film is intended to be a thriller, it is one of the most lethargic and forgettable in some time. If the film is intended to be an action picture, a 'la
"Speed" or "Die Hard," there is no palpable excitement or tension raised throughout the entire running time. And if the film is supposed to be a character study like "The Pledge
," it is sketchily written at best and lacking in much sense.
One never learns why, for example, Jack is willing to risk his life for Eddie when, before this occurs, he is portrayed as the type of officer who has no problem leaving a convict in his police car while he goes to buy a bottle of liquor and drink it. Jack is obviously not of a clear, sound mind, and is originally depicted as someone who barely has the energy to get out of bed and face each day, yet he suddenly grows a conscience and becomes a hero the second he suspects Eddie might be in danger? Jack's choices of action as they relate to his own past occur without the rhyme or reason outside of as a necessity to the script, and are not cohesive to what is learned about the character. The reciprocated life-changing relationship that forms between Jack and Eddie is also strained and, finally, cornball. As the obstacles stack against them, screenwriter Richard Wenk (1999's "Just the Ticket") has trouble mustering up even one moment of creative inspiration. In its place are not one, but two separate sequences that blatantly rip off the novel bait-and-switch climax of 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs." As for the too-neat, happy-go-lucky ending, it rings as false as what has come before.
Bruce Willis (2005's "Hostage
") is in desperate need of another career revitalization, as his every role has seemingly become a retread of his last. Jack Mosley is no exceptionthat of a hard-bitten, downtrodden authority figure with a world of problems and one last chance to redeem himself and save the day. Willis isn't bad in the partin fact, he's quite goodbut it's a boring role for an actor who could afford to switch things up every now and again. As the antagonistic Frank Nugent, who will do whatever needs to be done to save his own skin, character actor David Morse (2005's "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story
") is appropriately despicable and inappropriately one-note.
As gentle-hearted blabbermouth Eddie Bunker, Mos Def (2005's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
") is as close as the movie has to a saving grace. Incorporating a high-pitched tone to his voice and a pattern of speech that reminds of someone who has ingested too much sugar, Def creates a full-bodied, likable character who seems three-dimensional even if he really isn't. Whereas most performers would approach such a role with tough, threatening overtones, Def goes in the opposite direction, painting Eddie has a convicted criminal who has learned the error of his ways and wants to make a positive change in his life. It is curious and a little perplexing, however, why Eddie is constantly being called "kid" by everyone when he so clearly is a man in his thirties.
The question of what can happen and inevitably go wrong in the span of sixteen blocks is languorously dealt with in "16 Blocks." Certainly director Richard Donner and screenwriter Richard Wenk could have come up with more intriguing plot possibilities than what is seen on the screen, with Jack and Eddie basically hiding in one building, and then sneaking into another, and then hiding on a bus, and then making their way to another building, ad nausea. It's all very rudimentary and unimpassioned, and certainly not substantial or visual enough to be a theatrical release. There are infinitely more thrills, affecting character work and enriching dramatic intensity in any given minute of FOX's excellent "24" than "16 Blocks" has in all of of its wasted 101. This isn't just a poorly made motion picture; it would be bad television too.