"16 Blocks", directed by Richard Donner (the "Lethal Weapon" films, "Superman") and starring Bruce Willis, is the movie equivalent of putting on an old pair of shoes. They are comfortable as heck, but worn out, a little ratty looking, but boy do they fit well. This is both good and bad for Willis, Donner and the viewer.
Willis has played a cop in numerous films, it almost seems second nature to him. From the "Die Hard Series" to his recent "Hostage", the persona works for him. In "Blocks", he adds a little twist. Jack is an overweight, alcoholic who would rather do nothing than sit at a crime scene, babysitting the evidence while he drinks the deceased person's alcohol. He doesn't care about saving the world, he only cares about existing. Or does he? The answer to that question changes every few minutes of his life. There are times when Jack seems a very real character. Resting a few moments after an attempted ambush, he downs a few glasses of scotch to calm his nerves. Most people would think he might want to retain his wits. But an alcoholic calms down by drinking more. This is a very good observation of the character. But the character is an old shoe. Even with this nice observation, we have seen this person dozens, hundreds of times already. Willis has played variations on this role at least a dozen times himself. Jack offers little new for Willis and Willis offers little new for the audience.
Director Richard Donner has made many action films and this is well-traveled territory for him. As the film begins and the set-up unravels, the ticking clock begins, adding a level of suspense to the film. Jack has to get Eddie sixteen blocks in less than two hours. Seems easy, even in New York, but there are, of course, complications. Even though parts of the set-up are contrived to create this `ticking clock', the director and the writer, Richard Wenk, have established the rules of this universe in enough detail to make it credible. You might wonder why the Grand Jury would wait until the last minute to hear testimony from this witness, but they have and we go along for the ride.
This `ticking clock' also establishes the parameters of the film's universe. Jack has a deadline and if he doesn't meet it, everything he just went through is meaningless. He has to meet it. As he meets the various obstacles set in his path, it quickly becomes apparent the film will attempt to follow the journey in real time. We watch every moment of the journey, from start to finish, more or less in real time. This helps to ratchet the suspense level up a few notches.
Along the way, Jack and Eddie run into a series of obstacles, keeping them from their final destination. About twenty minutes into the film, after a potential ambush, Jack hides Eddie in a friendly bar, waiting for back-up to arrive. Eddie (Def) is a talker and he quickly annoys Jack (and us, but more on that later). When the back-up arrives, in the form of Jack's former partner Frank (David Morse) and a collection of other cops, Jack soon begins to put things together. When another cop shows up and Eddie immediately stops talking, Jack realizes he is in trouble. We see the thoughts clicking into place, everything adding up, in Jack's mind as he puts it together. The moment when Eddie stops talking is an effective trigger. As soon as Jack and Eddie meet, the witness has done nothing but talk and talk and talk. As soon as the cop enters, he becomes silent. Jack can tell something is wrong.
As they progress closer and closer to the Grand Jury, the film becomes a series of staged sequences featuring the alcoholic cop and his witness against bad cops in a variety of locales along the way; a cramped apartment in Chinatown, a construction site in Manhattan, the cramped basements of a small neighborhood. Frankly, these become repetitive and reminders of better sequences in better films. You know that Jack and Eddie will get through these series of obstacles. If they didn't, the film would end. We watch as Frank and his colleagues close in on Jack and Eddie, only for the alcoholic detective and his witness to escape at the last moment. The film even resorts to the old `red herring' clich. We follow both sides during a tense moment. Just as Frank and the corrupt cops close in on Jack and Eddie, they find they have been chasing an identical, but different, vehicle, piece of clothing, etc. Jack and Eddie get away again. This is a tired and lazy attempt for the screenwriter to get the two heroes out of their predicament. If it were used early in the story, it would be more interesting and forgivable. As it is used late, it seems as though the screenwriter merely ran out of ideas.
This `red herring' idea is only one of a handful of clichs the screenwriter uses, all of which point to someone who has seen a lot of films, but has few ideas of his own. Fake hostage situations, tape recorders, secret passageways, all pop-up at one point or another.
Director Donner does a good job or painting the cramped, dirty look of New York. Many of the tense moments are staged in small, dark areas, adding a little to the suspense. But after Jack and Eddie successfully navigate the first of these obstacles, and then the second we realize that these sequences are staged and they lose any connection to reality. Screenwriters are always looking for new and inventive ways to gets their characters in and out of danger. But if there never appears to be any real danger, these situations ring empty and false.
Mos Def, who has done some good work in previous films, doesn't fare so well with Eddie. He imbues the character with a high-pitched cartoon character voice which not only annoys Jack, but annoys us. The character's voice is a bad miscalculation, making Eddie the cartoon character he is. Throughout, Eddie carries around a notebook, which ultimately proves to be too outlandish as well. Initially, when Eddie reveals the contents of the book, I thought his explanation was an attempt to disguise the real contents. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
All of the grittiness Donner attempts to create, all of the dissatisfaction Willis attempts, all of the tense situations writer Wenck creates, are thrown out the window in the last few moments of the film. "Blocks" isn't true to itself. If it were true to the work of all involved, it would have a gritty, realistic ending. It doesn't.
There are touches here and there which hold promise and would make "16 Blocks" worthy of a DVD rental