Richard Donner’s latest buddy-action flick is thick with wrong decisions. While lean in its look and structure — handheld camerawork, spifty editing, close shots on fine actors’ faces — 16 Blocks is also weighed down by inexplicable images and ideas. Who thought that Mos Def’s affected nasally-vulnerable voice was a good idea? What about crashing that city bus into walls for what seems like five long minutes, just to ratchet up the grinding metal sound-effects factor? And who committed to that tired trick where one door opens, only to reveal that the door is not the one you think it is and oh my, the heroes have escaped certain death. Not once, but twice.
The movie is so wrong is so many ways that Bruce Willis is among its better choices. This even though he plays yet another total burnout (see also: Hostage, Sin City), so miserable in his own skin that he’s got trouble even peering out from it. Surely, Willis has perfected the gait, the tone, the utter weariness of this character. And with this version, a New York detective called Jack Mosley, he’s also burdened with bloodshot-eyed alcoholism. Jack can’t get through more than a few minutes at a time without visibly trembling, and so he tries to keep bottles stashed and his assignments minimized. When he asks what’s lined up for him down at the precinct, the receptionist gives him a breath mint, and his colleagues look over, shaking their heads in pity.
Though you don’t know immediately why Jack is so busted up, the reasons become clear soon enough — even though the movie pretends you don’t know until the end, when Jack’s dark “secret” and route to redemption emerge at the same time. Until then, he goes through motions, namely, transporting a witness to a police corruption case from the jail to the courthouse where he’s scheduled to testify. This distance constitutes the titular number of blocks, and once Jack learns the name of the case, he knows he’s not likely to make it.
The witness is Eddie (Mos Def), head bent down, voice high and odd, shuffling more than walking, and designed to annoy Jack. Talking incessantly, always finding the optimistic angle on any story (“You’re a sunny little shit, I’ll give you that,” grumps Jack), he’s a petty thief who means to go straight. Eddie has plans that he repeats whenever he has the chance, to move to Seattle to live with his sister and open a bakery (this aspiration leads directly to the film’s worst decision, an image of a black man posed in white baker’s hat and uniform, looking for all the world like one of those troubling “collectibles” in Bamboozled). Eddie bakes cakes, sending precious little bits of sugary sunshine into unhappy lives whenever he can. Because he charms little girls under duress and speaks eloquently about birthday celebrations, Eddie’s targeting by the bad men becomes strangely vindicating: their desire to hurt him makes Eddie “good,” within the film’s schematic moral set-up.
Though Jack doesn’t precisely trust Eddie, he knows too much about the wannabe killers, mainly because one is his longtime partner, Frank (David Morse, solid but so typecast by now that he hardly need stretch to make this character fit). But Frank is hardly alone in his nefariousness: it soon appears that every cop in town is corrupt, as Frank calls in multiple minions and keeps the commissioner informed of their progress, which means, apparently, there’s not a clean cop in the city save for Jack. And he’s wobbly. The fact that this passes for plot and not a joke is testament to the general sense of malaise and distrust that afflicts today’s moviegoers: everyone’s a cynic, from characters to consumers.
Eddie continues yapping and worrying, wondering whom to trust and whether to head out on his own (because, as he rightly points out to Jack, “Ever since I been with you, people been tryin’ to shoot me”). For his part, Jack takes stock of himself, stops drinking, and starts crafting a strategy, moment by moment, to keep his man alive and get him to the courthouse. This strategy involves frequent plot holes and conveniences, patched together with action sequences and banter scenes.
While the formula might have seemed clever(er) back in Donner’s Lethal Weapon heyday, now it’s creaky. In part, this is a function of time, but it also seems a matter of stubbornness. Repeatedly in the film, Eddie and Jack argue about whether “people can change,” with Eddie insisting they can and surly Jack, no surprise, thinking otherwise. 16 Blocks presumes its trite tricks — buddy bondings, boy jokes, buddy breakups, and guitar-tinged confessional moments — work even when viewers know them (which is not to say the tricks weren’t predictable in the 1980s).
Mostly, though, they rehearse tired constructions of moral dilemmas that can be fixed by a single, stand-up sort of decision: the brokedown man gets serious, gets straight, gets religion. His struggle is highlighted by someone else, say, the young black man who’s not even sure there’s a right thing to do inside this wholly crooked system; it’s instructive that Eddie is called “the kid” by everyone who’s not him, meaning, he’s not quite “boy,” but he’s hardly understood as a “man” like the rest of them (even though Eddie’s perfectly capable of holding a gun on Frank and not shooting him). While Eddie is most certainly in need of saving by Jack (who handles weapons like Bruce Willis in Die Hard), he also gets to be a little magical too, saving Jack in some other dimension. Now, if only someone can devise a way to represent that other dimension without resorting to diurnal conventions.