16 Blocks (2006)

Directed by Richard Donner.

“I believe life’s too long and guys like you make it even longer.”

The Disc

A fairly standard cut and paste cover, with Bruce Willis, Mos Def and the title at a bit of an angle, while David Morse is front, centre and upstanding – I can’t recall ever having seen Morse so prominent on a cover. He’s always great, but it’s weird to see him so high in the billing.

Extras-wise, there’s an alternate ending, deleted scenes and a trailer. Not exactly Christmas, but hey, at least they’re not trying to pass off ‘interactive menus’ as a special feature.

Why Did I Get This?

I don’t remember buying this, and I don’t really remember reading much about it at the time of its release. Certainly didn’t remember it was a Richard Donner film.

I do remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed it on my first watch though, and seem to recall Willis gave an actual performance rather than sleepwalking through his scenes for a paycheck. Mos Def was great too, and I think he stood out in a few things around this time – certainly one of the highlights of the Italian Job remake, and great in The Woodsman.

Weirdly, one of the main things that’s stuck in my head is the mobile phone used by the team of crooked cops, which also seems to act like a walkie-talkie. Funny the things you remember.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include spoilers for the film. If you want to avoid them, scroll down to the next heading!

The movie begins with a moody, black and white flash forward to Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis), narrating his last will and testament into a Dictaphone in a broken down bus surrounded by armed police, so we know from the off it looks like things might end bleakly for the former Moonlighter.

From this morbid scene, we cut to armed police smashing down the door to a drug den and dramatically sweeping through an apartment filled with corpses – it’s a really jarring cut, completely disarming (pun intended), and in any other Bruce Willis film, you’d expect his character to be leading the charge.

But he’s not – when the cops need a scene guard to babysit the corpses until forensics arrive, they basically ask ‘who’s around that we don’t need’, and we’re introduced to Mosley as he limps wearily up the stairs to the apartment, pot belly hanging over his trousers and sweating. As soon as the macho guys leave, he searches the cupboards, finds a bottle of booze, and sits down to read the paper and get drunk.

It’s a tired, sad performance, not showy, and I wonder if it might be the last proper acting performance Willis gave? When he returns to the precinct, he’s not even hiding the fact that he’s drunk – his colleague offer him a breath mint, he ditches an empty bottle loudly into the bin, and dabs at his pale, sweaty forehead as he sits at his desk to wait out the rest of his shift.

When his Lieutenant catches him on the stairwell as he tries to leave, the frame is canted to a severe angle – it’s clear something’s shifty with the assignment to accompany Mos Def’s Eddie Bunker to his court appearance in the next 98 minutes, but Mosley is also canted (or at least less than upright). It’s a while since I’ve seen Superman: The Movie, or Lethal Weapon, but I don’t remember director Richard Donner using that many Dutch Angles in his previous work (I’m far from an expert though, so happy to be proven wrong) – is he experimenting here, or did he just think ‘hey, that’s a cool shot’? More on the camerawork later.

Mos Def plays key witness Eddie Bunker – a name Tarantino fans will know from Reservoir Dogs’ Mr Blue, played by reformed criminal Edward Bunker. He did some naughty shit in his lifetime, and his book No Beast So Fierce is worth a read if you get chance.

This Eddie Bunker though is mostly harmless – he’s seen something he shouldn’t, and is due to give his testimony in the courthouse 16 blocks away before 10am, so it’s rush, rush, rush for Willis to get him to the car and to his fate. Mosley’s hangover isn’t helped by Bunker’s incessant talking – not just that, but Mos Def plays it with a whiny, nasal voice that wouldn’t be out of place in an Adam Sandler comedy. He just about keeps you onside throughout, but it gets close sometimes.

Immediately, Bunker’s chat rubs Mosley up the wrong way – banging on about signs, how he wants to set up a bakery and start a new life and posing a convoluted riddle to the drunk/hungover cop, to the point where he decides the only thing that’s going to make his morning better is another slug of booze, so he pulls over and heads into an offie for another bottle.

While he’s doing that, Bunker’s still talking (to himself this time), while a fella in overalls taps on the window then pulls out a pistol to do him in and BANG…

… there’s suddenly a bloody bullet hole in the window, followed by the villain’s head punching through the glass. Mosley stands outside the shop, the booze bottle in pieces on the floor, his pistol in his hand, looking more together than at any point in the film so far.

The noise of the gunshot at this point and throughout the film is deafening, followed by almost silence as the world slows down around Mosley – not in a Matrix-y kind of way, but in a stylish swooping shot that makes it clear yes, he’s washed up, yes, he’s a drunk, but when it comes to life and death, he can still focus. It’s a moment of clarity, brilliantly done. Disorientating, but followed by Willis trying to work out where the silenced rounds are coming from as decorations outside the shop explode quietly nearby, before he jumps in the car, takes out the second shooter by panicking and reversing over him, then running into a nearby bar with Bunker to phone for backup.

When backup arrives, it’s in the form of Mosley’s old friend and colleague Frank Nugent (David Morse) and his team. While Morse’s lugs eyeball Bunker, Nugent praises Mosley for his actions and tries to send him home with a bottle of whisky, as it becomes clear Bunker’s about to be murdered.

Morse plays this brilliantly, silver-tongued and saying all the right things. Like a hostage negotiator, he’s feeding Mosley’s needs and explaining actions in a way that almost make them sound like the right thing to do, but it’d be a pretty short film if it ended here, so Willis kneecaps one of the cops, points a sawn-off shotgun at the rest, and backs out of the bar with Mos Def – after that, it’s a pretty full-on chase movie.

The street scenes even look to have been filmed in New York, rather than some random city standing in for the Big Apple, even just throwaway shots look great, when you’ve like Morse talking to his equally-crooked captain with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

More to the point, the streets look busy and chaotic, and that chaos is ramped up not just through the performances of Willis and Def, but with crowds of people walking into shot, right past the camera, apparently barely noticing there’s filming taking place. It’s entirely possible these were well-trained supporting artists, but the street scenes look so naturally busy, it really adds a level of realism to a standard thriller.

Likewise, as our heroes take to the crowds to try to escape the villains, there’s a handheld quality to the camerawork which, combined with the ticking clock, bustling sidewalks, approaching hangover and nervous energy, really put me on the edge of my seat – minutes passed when I suddenly realised I’d not been taking notes because I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

Speaking of watchable, Mos Def is superb in this. Set aside the intentionally annoying vocal performance, and he’s playing determined but scared beautifully, with a nervous energy that is magnetic. In one scene, not long after the escape from the bar, he takes a moment to recover then psych himself up in a bathroom mirror – it’s just a simple touch, but it raises his shoulders and carries him into the next obstacle.

Late in the film too, as Bunker realises Mosley is more or less sacrificing his life so he can escape unnoticed with a crowd of innocent bystanders, Def seems to age 15 years in the space of a single, five or ten second shot. It’s unexplainable, but you can pretty much see the cogs turning, and his face falls. It’s brilliantly done.

David Morse’s character is a little less nuanced, but still great – sure, he’s a bit of a ‘boo-hiss’ villain, always chewing gum and barking orders, but in the quieter moments, he’s doing a lot of great work. Not just in the bar scene, but in the cellars beneath Chinatown, after he and Willis exchange 9mm bullets, we’re treated to another back and forth which explores their relationship, history and characters while the good guys wait for the slowest elevator in movie history.

Later, faced with a pistol to his chin, he holds firm while Bunker comes this close to pulling a trigger, but you can see in his eyes there’s rage, admiration and fear in equal measure.

Incidentally, Bunker and Mosley getting the drop on Nugent in the stairwell of an apartment building follows a classic Silence Of The Lambs-style switcheroo – the first of many in this film. Remember the great scene in Jonathan Demme’s film when the FBI swoop on a house we assume contains the bad guy, only for it to be a beautifully-edited misdirection? Well, Richard Donner sure as hell does, and he pulls the same trick on at least three occasions in 16 Blocks, each one slightly less satisfying than the last – and the gag with the ambulance really felt unearned.

Still, it’s a 98-minute movie, so I guess we have to excuse it a few little narrative shortcuts here and there, and the whole thing hangs together a whole lot better than some other movies with short runtimes. By the time we find out how Mosley ended up alone on a knackered bus, it barely feels like an hour has passed, but you’re invested in the characters – we want to see Bunker make it to court.

But, and I thought this was a really nice note, he doesn’t. He’s shot, but not killed, and Mosley gets him patched up and sends him to meet the sister he only just discovered (not a euphemism), instead offering to give evidence himself in the trial that will see the bad cops punished for their crimes.

And here’s the kicker – the only reason he’s able to give this evidence, is because he’s one of the bad cops himself. He and Nugent ran in the same circles, pulled the same grifts, and know where the bodies are buried, and Mosley is sick of living with that hanging over him.

Alright, it’s a pretty sudden change of heart (but, y’know, 98 minutes), but by the time Mosley has recorded Nugent admitting some of his crimes on a Dictaphone recording that probably wouldn’t be admissible in court, you’re completely sold that Willis is sobering up and doing the right thing.

Naturally, we get one last attempt at misdirection as a gunshot rings out in the courthouse as Mosley hands himself in, but then we’re two years down the line. Willis has lost the moustache, he looks happier, and is celebrating his birthday with his sister, some anonymous friends, and a cake, pictures and letter from Bunker, now living happily as a baker in Seattle.

Aww.

Thoughts On The Film

I was looking forward to seeing this again, and it didn’t disappoint. Alright, it’s a little formulaic and there are a few unnecessary gags in it, but overall, this is a solid little thriller.

I dug the real time element to it, too. It’s a concept I first remember being excited about when I rented the largely-forgotten John Badham/Johnny Depp/Christopher Walken movie Nick Of Time in the mid-nineties, years before 24 really took the ticking clock and ran with it. Here, while the timeframe is important, the movie never crowbars in the close-ups of clocks or watches, they feel more naturally-occurring, and the sense of urgency is palpable.

I mentioned this briefly earlier, but the sound of the gunshots in this is incredible – almost deafeningly high in the mix, they add to an already chaotic feel which couples brilliantly with the sheer inertia of the leads as they barrel through the city to make it from A to B before they’re out of time.

Performance-wise, Willis does revert slightly with a couple of wisecracks as the movie gathers pace, but his work in the early scenes is superb. In the original Die Hard, before his character became a deadpan, bullet-deflecting superhero, Willis played him as scared and out of his depth, and for my money, his performance in the early scenes of 16 Blocks is much closer to that than some of his lazier appearances.

He’s tired, hungover, but still a cop, dammit, and he knows wrong from right – it just takes one bad trip to help him realise he can pull himself out of this slump and make up for the wrongs he’s done. Likewise, Mos Def’s optimism and charm hide his vulnerability are a perfect foil to Willis’ early cynicism and apathy. Even his voice grows on you… kinda.

Verdict

I remember thinking at the time this felt like an old fashioned film, and I’ll stand by that – insofar as it’s a tightly-plotted thriller, with a decent script, an intriguing angle, great performances and direction, and while chaos features heavily, it’s not edited to within an inch of its life. You always know who’s where and what’s going on – something that became increasingly rare not that long after this movie was released.

Recommended.

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