Richard Donner is among my favorite directors for two reasons. He directed "Superman: The Movie," one of my all-time favorite movies that I think is often vastly underappreciated by current audiences. He also directed "The Goonies," another personal favorite that has more to do with my own nostalgia than the movie itself (although it is right fun). Other than those, Donner has had some highs (Scrooged), some lows (Timeline), and some decent, entertaining movies (Conspiracy Theory). I went into "16 Blocks" expecting a diverting action thriller akin to "Conspiracy Theory." What I saw was so much more.
I love when you go into a movie expecting one thing and end up seeing something much better. Like I said, I was predicting that this movie would be something like Donner's previous "Conspiracy Theory" with perhaps a little buddy comedy like his "Lethal Weapon" series thrown in as well. I am glad to report that it is not like either of those. "16 Blocks" is a gripping character study disguised as an action thriller.
The movie starts with washed-up Detective Jack Mosely (Bruce Willis) just coming off an overnight shift. He is tired and intoxicated and on his way home when his lieutenant orders him to escort Eddie, a prisoner (Mos Def) the titular 16 blocks to the court where he is due to testify in 118 minutes. Jack reluctantly agrees but he makes a pitstop at a liquor store on the way. When he emerges from the store, he sees Eddie being held at gunpoint. Jack shoots the gunman. Turns out Eddie is set to testify against some dirty cops. If this happens, it will implicate the entire precinct. Therefore, these cops are not going to allow Eddie to make it to court. Jack wearily chooses to do the right thing and protect Eddie. This plunges them into a real-time cat and mouse chase to get to the courthouse ontime and alive. The 16 blocks they must traverse are crawling with dirty cops led by Jack's former partner, Frank (David Morse).
Jack is burned out and washed up. He is never sober. We learn that he was once a pretty good cop but now he is reduced to babysitting asignments and no one in the department respects him. He has destroyed all of the relationships in his life and he just wishes "life was a little bit shorter." As he and Eddie are pursued by Frank, we gradually learn more about their past partnership. What happened that caused them to no longer be friends? Why is Frank now a hotshot and Jack an embarassment? Is Eddie really being honest with Jack? Did what he claims to have witnessed really happen? Is today really his birthday? If Jack can't do anything right, why is he so concerned about trying to do the right and good thing with Eddie? And can people really change? These are all questions that were racing through my mind as I was completely engrossed in this movie.
Like "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," this movie is a sort of redemption story. Jack has not always done the right thing, but he is attempting to make amends through on this morning. In his final confrontation with Frank, we are given a great illustration of the "cosmic battle" between truth and lie. Jack is repentant for the wrongs he has done in the past and is now defending the truth. He is standing opposite of Frank who is deperately trying to hold onto the lies he has conceived and get Jack to play along. Jack wants truth, and Frank says "F--- the truth!" It is a chilling scene that reminds us of the confrontation that surrounds ut at all times.
Donner directs the movie with a very capable but unassuming manner. His TV roots really show at times, and that is a good thing since he knows when to slow down for a revealing conversation, a luxury more often seen in TV than in movies of this type. Donner turns 76 this month and his direction shows the wisdom that comes with age. He doesn't do anything new, but what he does is top notch. The acting by all three leading men is top notch. Mos Def manages to create a character that is at once funny, annoying, and mysterious. Morse makes a great villain without being over the top about it. Willis, one of my favorite actors, is fantastic as Jack. Willis has a way of making what could easily be, and often are, hackneyed characters compelling. In his review of this movie, Roger Ebert does a good job of capturing in words one of the things I really enjoy about Bruce Willis:
The bedrock of the plot is the dogged determination of the Bruce Willis character. Jack may be middle-aged, he may be tired, he may be balding, he may be a drunk, but if he's played by Bruce Willis you don't want to bet against him. He gets that look in his eye that says: It's going to be a pain in the ass for me to do this, but I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. I always I believe that more easily than the look that merely says: I will prevail because this is an action picture and I play the hero.