16 Blocks

March, 2006, Thriller

Directed by:Richard Donner

Starring:Bruce Willis, Mos Def, and David Morse


The arts and longevity seem to go hand in hand; octogenarian British artist David Hockney recently hosted the opening of an exhibition of his portraits and is working on a new set of them to be finished over the next few years; 81 year old Robert Altman,  (MASH, Gosford Park) received an Oscar last night for lifetime achievement as he puts the finishing touches on his latest work (Prairie Home Companion) and says he's got another 40 or so good years left in him - - then there's director Richard Donner, more than halfway through his 7th decade, still churning out commercial thrillers capable of evoking favorable audience reaction. His latest features three male leads best described by reference to of one of Clint Eastwood's early spaghetti westerns, (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). Despite an ending notable only for its reliance on the trite conventions of the genre, Blocks contains enough of the director's trademark vigor to make it the best of this still-young year's thrillers, (although favorable comparison with Freedomland  & Firewall is surely damning with faint praise).

The premise of screenwriter Richard Wenk's plot is simplicity itself and overly indebted to Eastwood's 1977 shoot-'em up, The Gauntlet.  Jack Mosley, (Bruce Willis) an aging, mediocre cop, is assigned to transport small-time crook Eddie Bunker, (Mos Def) to court so he can testify before a grand jury investigating police corruption. A small job requiring travel of a mere mile or so through the crowded streets of lower Manhattan - - until Mosley discovers that a small group of rogue cops led by his former partner Frank Nugent, (David Morse) want Bunker killed. That sets up a round of urban cat and mouse, utilizing Chinatown's basement sweatshops, pedestrian-jammed streets and garbage-strewn alleys as the game board. Along the way, every mode of government-owned transportation from squad cars to buses to ambulances is employed, along with cell phones, SWAT teams and hand-held tape recorders. 

Wenk's script has a pair of neat surprises, (the last of which unfolds so matter-of-factly near the movie's end it's almost lost in the shuffle) and the screenwriter has an ear for the patois of the city's less socially desirable denizens which lends a veneer of street "cred" to the increasingly unrealistic obstacles placed in Mosley and Bunker's path. As is true of so many thrillers, the first hour or so of Blocks, (in which Donner briskly sets up the storyline and launches his principals into action) is far superior to the final resolution; it's commended only by brevity.  

No one can complain that the director's age has had an adverse impact on his ability to slam characters and props around like entrants in a demolition derby. Action is Donner's stock in trade, and he supplies it here in plentiful, if often predictable style; like the far more impressive Altman, Donner began his directorial career doing segments of early television chestnuts like Combat, Wanted Dead or Alive & Route 66. That training provided ample opportunity to deliver, with economy of style, the set pieces in action movies with which his film career has been most closely identified. (He was responsible for Superman 1 &2 along with all four in the Lethal Weapon series.)

He knows how to build tension into scenes of confrontation and how to employ vehicles for maximum shock effect. Character development in another matter…

As Mosley, Willis delivers yet another put-upon hero, too world-weary and laconic for his own good; like Harrison Ford, Willis is an actor fortunate to have had lots of parts for his narrow range of skills, but time is running out if his work here is any indication. After more than 50 roles in the two decades since his departure from television, Willis' smart-assed, anti-establishment persona feels as tired and bloated as his Mosley looks. 

As the violent crooked Nugent, Morse, (a physically impressive character actor much seen on the small screen) steals every scene he's in; nursing a wad of chewing gum and an attitude towards his former partner that reeks of good old boy condescension, Morse provides a scary/funny hoodlum who frightens because he carries a badge along with his gun. Morse deserves to be given more roles like this in which the darker side of his abilities can be put on display.

Which brings us to the third corner of the triangle; as Bunker, Mos Def delivers an irritating performance that makes the supposed chemistry he purportedly builds with Mosley, his reluctant police escort, impossible to accept. Much of the fault can be placed on the script; the rest in Def's interpretation of it. Sounding like Step'nFetchit one minute and the beleaguered product of an impoverished ghetto upbringing the next, Def embodies the absolute worst elements of racial stereotyping. His Bunker is an annoying, embarrassing caricature of the African American male.  

That Donner can keep three such disparate performances going without completely tanking his movie is a tribute both to his veteran skills and sadly, to the lowered expectations audiences have come to expect from conventional Hollywood efforts in this category. The bullets fly, the body count grows, but in the end, nobody in the audience really cares. Acceptable for a weekly television series perhaps, but at today's ticket prices, don't movie audiences deserve something more?

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