March 9, 2006

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16 Blocks (PG-13)
reviewed by Amy Diaz

Drunk (Bruce Willis) and Dim (Mos Def) hit the road for a trip that is short on distance but long on problems in the grim action movie 16 Blocks.

What is it with these aging action stars? Like Harrison Ford before him, Willis has his face permanently set to constipated frown, as though not enjoying yourself in a movie makes it serious work. I say, if you’re going to star in something that involves catchphrases, criminal/cop slang or late-middle-age men deciding to stand-up-for-themselves/ do-the-right-thing, have fun with it. You won’t be winning any Oscars for anything named after a plot point (that cop Willis and witness Mos Def have to travel 16 blocks from the precinct to the courthouse), but ham it up, have some fun and you might (Denzel Washington in Training Day) get a nice pat on the back. Instead, guys like Ford and Willis seem to say “you might be able to make me star in a movie like this, with your big pile of money, but you can’t make me like it.” Yeah, way to stick it to, er, well, us.

Jack Mosley (Willis) certainly has every reason to be the gray, grim man he is. Waves of stale liquor and failure waft off him like heat off a barbecue on a summer day. Like a man damning each moment he continues to live, Jack resignedly takes petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Dante “Mos Def” Smith) from his holding cell at the police station to the department vehicle in which Jack is to drive Eddie the 16 blocks to the courthouse so he can testify about something big enough to get him out of his assorted legal troubles. Jack can’t quite manage to travel the whole 16 blocks as sober as he is and pulls over to grab a bottle of liquor. While he’s in the store, a man comes to the car to shoot Eddie. Jack walks out just in time to shoot the man.

That first shooter isn’t the only one in the area, however. Jack and Eddie hightail it to a bar where Jack calls in back-up and ambulances and whatnot. Police do arrive, but they aren’t entirely back-up. Detective Frank Nugent (David Morse) and his crew tell Jack they’ll handle it. Turns out Eddie’s witnessing was of dirty dealings by police, including Frank. They ask him to look the other way while they prepare to kill Eddie, first fabricating a shooting. Jack, though a few shots in, is sober enough to decide he doesn’t want Eddie’s death on his conscience. Jack shoots one of Frank’s men, grabs Eddie and scrams, thus beginning the chase through the alleys, back rooms, basements and seedy apartments that cover the ground between Jack and Eddie’s “you are here” marker and the courthouse that will offer Eddie safe haven and a chance to clear his record.

Willis stumbles joylessly through the movie but Mos Def does no better, putting aside serious performances to play Eddie as a borderline mental defective. Why? I could guess, but all potential reasons make me uneasy; suffice to say it’s disturbing to see such a talented actor forced to play his character so one-dimensionally.

For all this blah-ness, 16 Blocks isn’t awful — a credit to, I don’t know, a tight story (in spite of an occasionally lazy script) maybe or whatever actory sparks the hammy dialogue and cheesy action scenes didn’t squash. There are stretches of the movie, especially toward the end, when the characters seem to forget to be awful and are simply entertaining, keeping you — at the very least — from turning away from this big-screen The Shield with a little Law & Order coolness thrown in. C+

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