Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (2006)

22. 16 Blocks

It’s surprising that Richard Donner and Bruce Willis didn’t work together sooner. For a time, Donner was one of the biggest action director in Hollywood while Willis was, quite similarly, one of the biggest action stars. By the time the two did collaborated, neither was at the peak of their careers. While Bruce wasn’t box office poison then – still isn’t, somehow – he was far from a huge star. Donner, meanwhile, had suffered a major flop with “Timeline.” “16 Blocks” did about as well as you’d expect a mid-tier action flick to do at the box office, breaking even but not breaking records. Bruce continues to be a reliable draw, if a far over-the-hill one. Donner, meanwhile, hasn’t directed another film since.

Jack Mosley is an alcoholic cop, tired and old. He’s exhausted after pulling an all-nighter. That’s when his boss asked him to do a simple task: Escort a witness from police custody to court. That man is a petty thief named Eddie Bunker. While parked on a busy street, a man attempts to kill Bunker. Soon, a group of cops corner Eddie and Jack in a bar. Turns out, Eddie is about to testify against a group of dirty cops, who are intent on making sure that doesn't happen. Despite having no connection with the man, Jack decides to protect Bunker. The two men are pursued across the city by the crooked cops, each searching for redemption in their own way.

Small scale, nitty-gritty thrillers like “16 Blocks” live and die on how eye-catching their premises are. “16 Blocks,” luckily, has a pretty good one. The title is in reference to the relatively short distance between Bunker’s jail cell and the court house. In other words, it’s the area the two main characters will be traveling throughout the story. Aside from a brief prologue and epilogue, “16 Blocks” also plays out in real time. This is a good move, emphasizing Jack’s exhaustion and how precarious his situation is. While hardly ground-breaking, “16 Blocks” does have a good idea to build upon.

Yet a catchy premise probably wouldn’t have been enough even for a modest movie like “16 Blocks.” What elevates the material just high enough is the heart behind the story. Jack and Eddie are both in need of redemption. Mosley is a bitter, burnt-out, old booze hound. As the story progresses, we learn that Jack is one of the dirty cops Eddie is testifying against. His change of heart represents the last chance he has to make a decent decision, to do something good. Bunker, meanwhile, dreams of getting out of jail, traveling across the country, and opening a bakery. He’s a petty criminal who has lived his whole life in and out of prison. Near the story’s beginning, Eddie tries to convince Jack that everyone deserves a second chance. He doesn’t believe him. By the story’s end, he’s change his mind. It’s nothing mind-blowing but these hopeful, simplistic themes makes “16 Blocks” a little more then just a mildly effective thriller.

As Jack Mosley, Bruce Willis plays an alcoholic cop who has spent too many years on the force and burned most every bridge he has. It’s a part not dissimilar to where John McClane was circa “Die Hard with a Vengeance.” It’s a part well suited to the general ambivalence Willis brought to most everything he’s done in the last decade. There’s little of the humor that characterizes Willis’ best performances. However, Willis soon brings an empathetic humanity to the part. Jack is injured throughout the film, getting shot in the hand and hurting his leg. There’s something admirable about the character’s refusal to compromise in this situation. “16 Blocks” might seem like a boring Bruce Willis performance at first but, eventually, it reveals better acting then expected, utilizing some of Willis’ better attributes as a performer.

Co-starring in “16 Blocks” is the performer formally known as Mos Def. A rapper by trade, Mr. Def has shown some decent acting chops the handful of times he’s stepped in front of the camera. As Bunker, Mos Def applies a strange dialect to his voice. He mumbles, almost unintelligible throughout most of the film. The audience has to listen very closely to understand anything he’s saying. As the film progresses, the audience either gets use to it or Def’s delivery becomes more clear. Once you get passed that, you can see that the actor gives an interesting performance. Mos Def affects a slightly jittery body language, displaying the character’s nerves in his appearance. His unassailable upbeat streak wins over the audience around the same time it wins over Jack. He’s made mistakes but he’s ready to repent and start over. It’s a good bit of acting from Mos Def.

Most of “16 Blocks” is focused on Willis and Def. However, the film occasionally makes room for another character. The last Richard Donner movie David Morse appeared in was “Inside Moves,” sixteen years prior. This film’s Detective Nugent doesn’t have much in common with “Inside Moves’” Jerry. Nugent is the villain of “16 Blocks,” the leader of the corrupt cops pursing Mosley and Bunker. Morse brings a gravelly intensity to Nugent. He’s someone with no ethical opposition to what he’s doing. Instead, he approaches the murder of an innocent man as if it was any other job. Morse is intimidating but humanistic, giving the bad guy easily understood and all too earthly motives. Jenna Stern also has a likable bit part as Jack’s sister, showing a lot of charm in the few scenes she’s given.

“16 Blocks” is, for most of its run time, a chase movie. The pace rarely slows down, the movie always barreling ahead to its next set pieces. This relentless tone produces a few memorable action set pieces. Such as the shoot-out in the bar, near the beginning, when the characters are diving around gunfire. The first burst of violence happens partially off-screen, the blood and accompanying dead body smashing through a window before the viewer is clear on what’s happening. There’s a nice pause midway through a chase where the two protagonists step into an old Asian man’s apartment. An effectively directed moment has a bus, with a busted tire, taking off, crashing into a row of cars. A clever trick “16 Blocks” utilizes repeatedly has one team of characters busting in on a location, unaware that the heroes have already left. It’s a bit of misdirection at least as old as “Silence of the Lambs” but “16 Blocks” uses it well.

As exciting and well executed as “16 Blocks” can be, it’s a shame the movie’s visual design is so dour. The film is characterized by a grey color palette. Whether it’s the grey concrete of the city streets or the overcast clouds above, “16 Blocks” isn’t a very colorful movie. While mildly annoying this is less of a problem then the movie’s sometimes shaky action direction. Considering Richard Donner built his career upon clearly orchestrated, old school action, it’s disappointing to see his name on a movie with a jittery camera. While not enough to ruin the film, there are several scenes where the picture is shaking back and forth for no damn reason at all. If a gritty verisimilitude was the goal, the decision is more distracting then anything else.

While most of “16 Blocks” is constantly moving, the film takes an unexpected turn during the middle. Jack and Eddie run onto a crowded bus. Realizing they're cornered, Mosley takes all the passengers hostage. The tense stand-off that follows is actually part of the plan. It’s essentially a method to distract the bad guys, so Eddie can sneak away to safety in the crowd. While a sudden change in direction like this would derail most movies, “16 Blocks” manages to make it work. The tension doesn’t deflate. Instead, it merely changes direction. The thrills are internalized, the audience uncertain of Jack’s goals or what will happen next. Little, humanizing moments – such as Eddie bonding with a little girl on the bus – help keep the sequence grounded too.

While its thrills are of the low key variety, “16 Blocks” is ultimately an action movie. There are vehicle chases, car crashes, shoot-outs, bloody squibs, heroes and villains. However, the film’s conclusion is more preoccupied with characters then big explosions. It’s a tense stand-off between Mosley and the other dirty cops. He makes a stand against his enemies in a public place, making himself vulnerable to harm. Ultimately, it’s the pay-off of Jack’s character arc. Formally, he was a man who believed in nothing. Now, he’s standing up for something. Once again, it’s a moment that probably shouldn’t have worked but “16 Blocks” approaches the ending with patience and focus, wringing something out of nothing.

As a Richard Donner movie, “16 Blocks” features a few of the director’s trademarks. It’s pretty easy to draw a parallel between Mosley and Bunker’s love/hate relationship and the similar one between Riggs and Murtaugh. For that matter, “16 Blocks” was written by Richard Wenk, who previously wrote an unused screenplay for “Lethal Weapon 4.” Aside from their contrasting skin colors, the leads of “16 Blocks” seem to mix and match the “Lethal Weapon” partnership. Mosley is outwardly professional but inwardly crumbling. Bunker appears to be a rogue but secretly has it together. Donner also sneaks a “No Fur” poster into a background shot, naturally.

“16 Blocks” underperforming at the box office and receiving middling reviews has actually helped the film in the long run. Approached with any expectations and the film would derided as clichéd. If the audience goes in knowing as little as possible, “16 Blocks” proves to be a surprisingly entertaining, thoughtfully written, and expertly constructed little action/thriller. Though far from the classics that Richard Donner directed in the past, as the likely conclusion to his directorial career, it’s not a bad note to go out on. [Grade: B]

The franchises Richard Donner started will continue. In addition to that "Lethal Weapon" TV show, a new "Omen" movie was recently announced. (And Superman, of course, will never die.) While he's continued to work as a producer from time to time, the 86 year old filmmaker is more or less retired now. He seems to be enjoying his current status as the elder statesman of the superhero genre. His career had wildly divergent ups and downs but this was certainly an interesting retrospective. I don't think I've ever crossed this many genres before over one report card.

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