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16 Blocks   C

Warner Bros. Pictures / Alcon Entertainment

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Richard Donner
Writer: Richard Wenk
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse, Jenna Stern, Casey Sander, Cylk Cozart, David Zayas, Robert Racki, Conrad Pla.

Review by Rob Vaux

16 Blocks makes a very sad and very typical mistake common to mid-level studio filler. Having hit upon its signature gimmick -- something simple yet compelling, the better to convey in easily digestible ad copy -- it never figures out how to springboard into a genuine plot. It defines the rules of its game, sets the motor running... and then fritters our good will away with lazy, halfhearted cop-outs. Time and again, it paints its heroes into a series of fascinating corners, only to set them free with uninspired and compulsory waves of its hand. As magic tricks go, they get old fast.

The timetable is a key part of the drama; 16 Blocks takes place largely in real time, its story confined to two hours of a particularly unpleasant New York morning. To it, DP Glen MacPherson adds an imposing sense of claustrophobia; never have the streets of Manhattan felt more congested, or the buildings loomed so uncomfortably close. It's a fine environment for ticking clocks: specifically a grand jury testimony from small-time crook Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), which must be heard before the judge closes the case. Bunker's in lockup at 8 a.m.; the hearing ends at 10. All he needs is for someone to take him the 16 blocks between the city jail and the courthouse in the time allotted. Throw in boozehound detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) to babysit him and a gaggle of bad guys taking potshots at them the whole way, and you've got the makings of a decent (if unduly pedestrian) thriller.

Director Richard Donner tries to filter the action through the traditional buddy formula, with a mismatched duo -- one cop, one crook -- learning to depend on each other while thugs and bullets fly at them from every direction. Though the characters are hopeless stereotypes, good casting helps overcome some of the clichés. Mos Def indulges in rampant showboating, but his charisma lends Eddie some natural sympathy and ensures that his motormouth hustler never tries our nerves. As for Willis, no other star will so fearlessly look like reheated dog vomit for the sake of a role; his queasy, sweaty performance here suggests a man way out of his league, who took a milk-run assignment as a way of going with the flow, and now that things have gotten heavy would really rather just curl up on the steam grate with a bottle of hooch. The parts offer nothing we haven't seen before, yet each performer makes a game run of it. Unfortunately, while their individual turns are decent, they don't function nearly as well together, and the Gibson-Glover chemistry for which the filmmakers are clearly hoping never materializes.

And the threats they face run out of gas far too quickly. Things begin promisingly, as Mosley stops to get a morning pick-me-up and a pair of killers takes the opportunity to try to eliminate Bunker. The sequence brims with energy, despite an abrupt editing job, and the emerging threat -- corrupt cops from Mosley's own department, destined for jail if Bunker ever survives to testify -- is generally serviceable. But 16 Blocks simply never does anything with them. The ensuing game of cat-and-mouse is supposed to redeem Willis' washed-up loser -- giving him a purpose after years of drifting through the NYPD's cracks -- but the periodic clashes and confrontations demonstrate little thought or imagination. They soon settle into a tired routine, as the bad guys try to pin down our heroes, only to see them slip away at the last instant. Donner invests a great deal into each sequence, setting the trap and then letting us watch as Willis and Def stumble into it. But their escapes remain hugely contrived, boiling down to convenient deus ex machina that 16 Blocks tries to hide through fitful acts of misdirection. David Morse brings life and enthusiasm to the film's chief antagonist -- Willis' former partner, who knows where all the bodies are buried -- but he, too, is confounded by the threadbare material on display -- topped by a finale that any educated five-year-old could spot from miles away.

The homogenized assembly line that produced 16 Blocks never aspires to brilliance, of course, and an old warhorse like Donner will always keep things in hand, even if the results remind us that his best years are far behind him. But modest entertainment was easily in reach here -- enough popcorn fun to justify the exercise at least. If only someone had gone after it with more gusto: someone who could look past the shaky details, infuse some cleverness into the shticks, and help the concept make good on its potential. Without more of an effort, however, potential is all this film will ever have -- formulated in a pitch meeting, slapped on a poster, and left to slowly wither before our eyes. For all its hair-trigger thrills and would-be suspense, 16 Blocks leaves you wondering what the point of it all was. Couldn't these guys have just called a cab?

Review published 02.03.2006.

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