Bruce Willis dons yet another hairpiece toward reprising his more hirsute era during the box office heydays of his trio of Die Hard movies. 16 Blocks is a sporadic chase sequence set around petty crook Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) who needs to be transported from his jail cell to Manhattan’s main courthouse, 16 blocks away, to give crucial testimony in a grand jury case that could end the careers of many dirty police officers.
Alcoholic NYPD veteran Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is coming off of a long night shift when he’s relegated to chaperone Eddie to his 10 a.m. court appointment. Every dirty cop in town comes to the aid of head police baddie Frank Nugent (David Morse) in attempting to catch or kill Jack and his handcuffed ward before they reach the courtroom. Mos Def makes the most of his valuable co-star screen time by creating a humorous character that periodically elevates the strictly formulaic script.
Comparing Bruce Willis action movies to one another is a pastime that only lasts a couple of moments before some other actor, in this case Mos Def, becomes the focal point of the discussion. We take Willis for granted because he works primarily in the same genre with a character that he has mastered to a point of boredom.
Much like his marginal police officer character Jack Mosley in 16 Blocks, Willis punches a clock, does his bit and punches out. He doesn’t bother to create a character because he’s already done it the same way in too many movies to mention. What Willis doesn’t account for, as an actor, is the vacillating quality of scripts.
These days Hollywood is centrally interested in action movies like Batman or Superman that can be serialized and turned into franchises. 16 Blocks is the product of six film production companies that made the film before Warner Brothers took over the distribution end. This new business model has downsized what would have, ten years ago, been an action movie with bigger explosions and helicopter crashes. Screenwriter Richard Wenk fumbles with fleshing out his three main characters (Jack, Eddie and Frank) in this more condensed arena yet still can’t avoid narrative pit falls that sink his stereotypes into plot cliches that leave little breathing room for personality traits to mean anything.
The centerpiece of the movie occurs after a crash involving a busload of passengers that leads to a standoff with Jack on the dark end of a hostage negotiation. As Jack performs some doublethink on the army of police snipers beyond the relative safety of the crashed bus, with its windows covered over in newspaper, the movie takes a somber tone that temporarily opens up its dramatic possibilities. It’s the one time when the characters aren’t running up and down stairs of apartment buildings and subways in their circuitous attempt to escape Frank Nugent and his legion of fairly incompetent fellow officers.
Mos Def uses a pinched nasal voice for Eddie that resembles comedian Dave Chappelle’s trademark vocal inflection, and sets his character distinctly apart from Willis’ steely eyed incarnation. Def’s character choice works to his advantage as he uses it to create new corners of subtext for his character. Mos Def doesn’t so much steal scenes as palm them away from the action around him to create an oasis of naturalism.
He uses his voice with an ironic awareness of the narrative artifice around him and gently deconstructs the story as it unfolds. There’s only one reason to see 16 Blocks, and his name is Mos Def. He’s simple and effective in representing a level of humanity lacking in all of the other aspects of the film. MTW