Calling 16 Blocks a bad film is selling it short. It’s often truly awful, a mess of confused geography (both real world and action), an improbably slothful pace, a lead actor showing about the same amount of effort I see in your average McDonalds lifer, and a subtext so grotesquely racist I couldn’t believe it.
The concept seems so simple and so propulsive it’s hard to imagine how Richard Donner bollixed it so thoroughly. A fat, limping, alcoholic cop must get a witness before a grand jury so he can testify against some crooked cops. He has a little under two hours to make it 16 blocks in lower Manhattan, but the rogue elements of the police force are out to stop him and make sure the duo never get to the courthouse. In a lot of ways the concept is like The Warriors meets 24, or as many have noted, Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet writ small. But done wrong, as it is here, the concept boils down to a series of confrontation completely divorced from any sense of urgency or tension.
16 Blocks has a lot of problems for regular viewers, but for New Yorkers it’s compounded. The idea of Bruce Willis and Mos Def taking an action tour of our fair city is pretty great, until we’re treated to obvious chunks of Canada in the proceedings. But even for people who have never been to the city the film’s geography is a muddle – a street here, a building there, a rooftop there, and for most of the running time, Chinatown. When your movie is titled after the distance your heroes must travel, it helps to make us understand this distance, even in the abstract, but Donner never does that. Die Hard With a Vengeance (a movie we’ll be getting back to when discussing Willis’ performance, such as it is) did a great job not of creating a real New York City geography but rather of a varied city. You shouldn’t use that film as a guide to getting around Manhattan, but each set piece and action sequence takes place in an area that looks and feels different, creating a tapestry that not only entertains, but delineates one segment from the next. The city in 16 Blocks is relentlessly generic, sort of like Century City in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, or like in any movie that just uses a backlot city street to represent an entire metropolis.
Donner’s tedious geography extends to his action choreography. It’s like he decided there’s no reason to set up any actual physical relationships between people, locations and obstacles in any given scene. Guns discharge, people run, doors are slammed, but these actions take place in their own spaces, independent of the other actions around them. I guess if Donner was making a statement on dislocation and isolation in a big city I could understand this, but the reality of it seems to be a sloppy attempt to ape modern action aesthetics, which do skirt incoherence. The action scenes are bled of not only tension and excitement but even basic meaning.
They’re also remarkably TV-ish – Willis and Mos Def are faced with a limited army of foes, about five or six fairly anonymous dirty cops (and with a number that low you would have figured someone would have come up with a way to make them individuals. It makes you long for old army movies where characters at least had stereotypes they fit), and every encounter is like something out of the A-Team – a guy is wounded! A guy is handcuffed! The bad guys are narrowly evaded! While I’m not advocating wonton bloodshed in my action films (oh, who am I kidding? You don’t come to an action film for its philosophical musings on male bonding), the action and violence in 16 Blocks feels consequence-free, and since you can’t even understand what’s going on in some scenes, why even bother worrying about it?
16 Blocks wants to coast on the relationship between Willis and Mos Def, but only one of the actors is actually acting – and shamefully enough, he’s acting as a shuffling Sambo. Bruce Willis fans may be satisfied by his zombie shuffle through familiar material; 16 Blocks is essentially Die Hard 4: Die Hard With More Vengeance, as Willis’ cop character is just the natural progression of John McClane character – older, fatter, drunker and now slightly physically disabled (a limp that becomes evident whenever the “drama” demands it).
Mos Def, meanwhile, has accomplished the bizarre – he delivers a very good performance as a character who is a racial caricature. He’s the informant who will shut down the dirty cops, and he’s a fast-paced, jive-talking small-time hood. I was actually amazed when his secret dream in life wasn’t to become a rapper, but rather a baker. That’s progressive! The thing that irks about his character, though, is that his whole place in the film is just to teach Bruce Willis a lesson. Mos Def represents the White Man’s New Burden, a post-Civil Rights specter that haunts The Man. These dirty cops are brutalizing his peeps, man, and it’s up to Willis to act mighty white and bring these scoundrels to justice. Mos Def’s character spends the movie helpless, and even his big scene of “helping” Willis out is motivated by some kind of Negro Gump silliness and naiveté.
What bugs me about Mos Def is that he’s good – he brings the character to life, if in an annoying way. But the film around him disrespects him at every turn, and it’s weird to see a guy who starred in Bamboozled, which was about modern minstrelry – becoming a minstrel.
16 Blocks briefly shows the hope of being a good film – the movie opens with Bruce Willis alone on a hijacked city bus, and then flashes back to the events that brought him there. It’s the bus sequence, which almost achieves the resonance of a Dog Day Afternoon reference on The Simpsons, that should have been the heart of the movie. Donner shows no interest in creating a movie that’s actually traveling 16 Blocks or has the immediacy of a two hour deadline, so he should have just stuck with the dynamics of a good guy hijacking a bus. The sequence also allows Mos Def to stop being so shrill, and interact nicely with other people than the seemingly stupefied Willis. And it’s the only sequence with any pacing – the movie up to that point keeps stopping and starting, apparently to create a buddy relationship between Willis and Mos Def which the two actors are not capable of sustaining.
A good version of 16 Blocks would never give the viewer time to wonder why Bruce Willis’ character doesn’t call the media or the FBI or a cop he trusts. A good version of 16 Blocks would have been a breathless thrill ride set against the colorful streets of Manhattan. We did not get a good version of 16 Blocks.