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16 Blocks (2006)


Bruce Willis has long been the quintessential “cop” actor. From his role as John McLane in Die Hard, he has played a number of cops, police officials, and detectives over his long career, with great effectiveness. His more recent cop roles seem to be tending towards a little-explored facet of the cop role in recent movies: the tired cop. And in 16 Blocks, one tired cop has one simple mission. And it’s an escort mission. FUUUUUUUUUUUUUU~

16 Blocks is an action thriller film directed by Richard Donner and written by Richard Wenk. It stars Bruce Willis, Mos Def, and David Morse, and is shot in the “real time” narrative format.

Jack Moseley is a tired, burned-out, and rather hung over NYPD detective. After pulling an all-nighter, Jack is about to go home and crash for the day when his lieutenant gives him one last assignment. Jack doesn’t want the job; he just wants to get some rest – but his lieutenant has no one else on hand to take the job, so Jack is it. It sounds like a simple assignment: escort one guy sixteen blocks from jail to the courthouse to testify as a witness for the prosecution. He has to get there by 10. Simple, right? Well, if you discount the fact that a lot of people are going to try to kill this particular witness, and many of them are fellow cops, then yeah, it’s a simple mission… until it isn’t.

I wasn’t sure about this one when I got it from Netflix. The premise was so simple, it sounded like it was going to be sixteen blocks of shootouts, car chases, and flashy stunts. To my surprise, 16 Blocks is as much a character study as an action thriller. Rather than squeezing the aging Bruce Willis into a generic Cop mold (which he seldom fits, even when he creates the mold in question), they give him a past, a family, flaws, weaknesses, and regrets. He’s an alcoholic. He did some bad things in the past. And yet, he is still a noble character despite (or because of) all this. Likewise, Mos Def as Eddie Bunker is not a generic wisecracking con. Even though at the beginning he seems to be mainly channeling the Cat from Red Dwarf as he prattles on and on into Jack’s ear, he too has plans, hopes, and regrets, saving him from being nothing more than That Annoying Black Guy Bruce Has To Babysit. He, too, is a noble character, though he is rightfully afraid for his life for most of the movie, as he reveals his altruistic plans for the future. However, because so much of the story focuses on these two, David Morse’s role as antagonist Detective Frank Nugent is left a bit short. As the story unfolds we do learn the whys and wherefores of his character, but mostly he seems a bit generic, the figurehead and point of contact with what turns out to be a desperate conspiracy of silence.

Fortunately, the extensive character development combines well with the basic plot, turning what would otherwise have been a tired, generic story into something interesting. You learn to care about Jack and Eddie and their respective goals, rather than just sitting back and watching the chaos ensue. The action is subdued, just a relative handful of firefights and a fair number of foot-chase sequences as Jack focuses more on avoiding their pursuers (who could and would happily kill his charge) than confronting them with guns blazing (which could go all kinds of wrong for him). It is a tense game of cat and mouse that takes a step back into Die Hard territory – limited ammo, limited timeframe, limited resources. Their pursuers are tenacious and resourceful, keeping them on their toes and preventing them even the luxury of any real breathing room. Jack and Eddie must get away every time, while their foes only have to get to Eddie once and it’s all over.

While more subdued and less flashy than many contemporary action movies, 16 Blocks was still decently engaging. With three-dimensional characters and a decent setup, this movie would be worth a rental some night when you aren’t in the mood for car fu, gun fu, bomb fu, or over-the-top action-star pyrotechnics.

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