16 Blocks: Richard Donner’s Formulaic Actioner, Starring Bruce Willis

A notch, but not more, above the typically routine Richard Donner picture, 16 Blocks is a formulaic actioner, in which Bruce Willis, aging and declining, tries in vain to hang on to his star position and box-office clout.
(All of Willis actioners and other vehicles of the past five years have been failures, including Hart’s War, Tears of the Sun, and Hostage).

The most impressive thing about the movie is its number of producers–14 to be exact–if you count all the executive and associate producers (see list below). However, when it comes to verbal and visual clichs, there are more than 16 in the film. Trust me on this one.

Laced with some but not enough humor, this cop-victim buddy-movie, in which the cop is white and the criminal black, recalls Assault on Precinct 13 (itself a remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and redone recently by John Carpenter himself), Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (a much better picture), and numerous generic items that used to decorate the American screen in the 1960s and 1970s.

Based on viewing 16 Blocks, Firewall, and last summer’s actioners (Stealth anyone), it may be a good idea to call a moratorium on the action-thriller genre, until someone comes up with a new idea or fresh angle. Our action stars, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Ford, and Willis, are simply too old, not just for the increasingly young public but also for the type of roles they choose to play and the star vehicles designed to keep them in the public eye.

The chemistry between Willis and Mos Def and Donner’s craftsmanship make the experience slightly more tolerable than it has the right to be. Nonetheless, the saga’s incoherencies and plot improbabilities are so glaring that I doubt whether any director or star could have overcome them and make a decent movie.

We don’t expect much from Donner, who’s more of a technician than a real filmmaker, but 16 Blocks strikes me as an expertly crafted B-actioner that tries to pass as A-level entertainment, a popcorn movie disguised as morality cop tale. Donner has not directed a movie since the disappointing Timeline, in 2003; before that, he made Lethal Weapon 4, in 1998, a series that ran out of steam and charm. It’s hard to tell whether Donner is given much of a choice anymore by way of subject matter.

Sporting a belly to go along with his signature smirk, lazy manner, and exhausted line delivery (as if he’s doing the audience a favor), Willis plays Jack Mosley, a NYPD burned-out alcoholic detective. One morning, just as hes leaving the squad room, Mosley is assigned to escort a small-time hood named Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from a cell to an appointment with the grand jury downtown where hes scheduled to testify. It’s a task that should take only 16 minutes, after which he can go home and drink.

However, when Mosley stops to buy booze and a couple of guys try to kill Bunker, the detective saves his prisoner and calls for backup. Unfortunately, the peers who arrive–headed by Mosleys vet partner Frank Nugent (David Morse)–turn out to be behind the plot to kill Eddie; he was going to rat on them and expose their dirt. Mosley’s thus faces a dilemma, either to allow his buddies to kill Bunker and make it look like a legit shooting, or to protect Bunker and get him on time to the courthouse.

What ensues is a series of elaborate chases, with Mosley and Bunker going through some calculated evasions and escapes. Donner doesn’t take advantage of the fact that the film’s running time is almost the same as its narrative time: The story begins at 8:02 and the testimony before the grand jury is scheduled for 10am. 16 Blocks could have been moresuccessful if it incorporated this element in the way that Zinnemann’s 1952 Western High Noon did.

The beginning of duo’s interaction is bumpy: Bunker, a chatty guy, irritates Mosley. However, in the process, getting to know each other under pressure, Mosley and Bunker begin to bond, and the film thus turns from a routine actioner into a routine buddy-buddy tale. Mosley begins to realize that Bunker may be a low-life, but he’s trying to change and even redeem himself; there’s a revelation from Bunker’s past that’s meant to explain his present conduct.

Some of these episodes are comic if familiar, like the one involving an elderly Chinese, while others defy any logic–even movie logic–and are absurd, such as the overly long scene of a highjacked bus and hostages.

Unfortunately, scripter Richard Wenk doesn’t give Mosley anything interesting to say or to do. He is a stereotypical broken down, out of shape cop (with a bad leg) whose sole wish is to get home in time to have his drink.

Def acquits himself more honorably, making Bunker a more likable and sympathetic rogue. At first, his nasal voice is affected and annoying, but we somehow get used to it. Later on, in an effort to humanize Bunker, he is shown to be sensitive to children and old people. At one point, the wisecracking victim talks wistfully about his plans to open a birthday cake bakery.

This by-the-the-book thriller represents efficient rather than effective entertainment, defeated by the clichs that hit the audience thick on the head.

16 Blocks is a solid but minor, utterly impersonal work. As usual, Donner stages scenes with speed and aggression but with no personal touch or style. The movie could have been directed by any hack that knows the basic grammar of actioner.

There’s decent camera work from Glen Macpherson, who uses wide-screen composition and desaturated colors, though he can’t conceal the fact that the movie was shot in Toronto, standing in for New York City.

I can only speculate how the public would react to Donner’s cynical portrait of New York City cops in the post September 11 era. Running against the grain, this may be the only “audacious” angle in Wenk’s screenplay.

For the record:

These are the 14 producers who get credit:

Producers: Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, John Thompson, Arnold Rifkin, Jim Van Wyck.

Executive Producers: Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, George Furla, Hadeel Reda, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Josef Lautenschlarger.

Co-Producers: Derek Hoffman, Brian Read.