Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is the sort of disheveled lush of a detective who gets assigned to escort a two-bit criminal, Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), to the District Attorney awaiting his testimony before a Grand Jury. Mosley’s the kind of detective who would rather avoid being noticed if he could. But he’s not your conventional stereotype of the lifer who took refuge behind a desk only to have his shot at the big time thrust in his lap.
Instead of the hardened criminal-turned-State’s-evidence, Eddie Bunker is a rather unassuming character. This is emphasized unnecessarily with Mos Def’s delivery â€” a cross between Mike Tyson and the nerdy-but-lovable Jiffrenson Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) in “Bowfinger.” The director perhaps felt that the character’s endearing nature need be beaten to death by going in the completely opposite direction of the black gangster stereotype. It doesn’t entirely work but it doesn’t entirely fail, either.
At the beginning of the film, we hear Mosley’s voice in a recording, with images of police in SWAT gear preparing to breach an entry. Mosley’s telling his wife he doesn’t think he’ll make it out of the situation. What situation, we don’t know. Of course it’s obvious we’ll find out. The basic premise is rather simple, but I’ll try to discuss it in a way that avoids revealing too much of the plot because much of what story there is relies a lot on the elements of suspense and surprise.
The big question revolves around what it is that Eddie witnessed. Apparently what he knows is important enough that a number of people want him dead. There’s a scene early in the film where one of two men pursuing Mosley’s squad car attempts to kill Bunker while Mosley stops off to get a drink. Sure, I know what you’re thinking, “Alcohol, at 8:30 in the morning?” Trust me, he has a long day ahead. He tells Eddie, “I believe life’s too long and guys like you make it even longer.”
I’m not going to talk about Bruce Willis’ so-called “everyman” quality. Whenever a critic discusses an actor’s “everyman” quality, what they’re really saying is that the actor in question doesn’t know how to play anyone else but himself or herself. The reason I found this film interesting is because Bruce Willis breaks away from that type â€” at least until the movie has to revert to action mode. It’s as if someone took “The Negotiator,” halved the dialogue and doubled the action. The problem is, the writer and director of this film didn’t understand “The Negotiator” was sufficient as a character and plot film more than it would have as yet another bland action film.
And bland, forgettable action this film does have. There’s chase after chase after chase. After a while, you might forget how far along the film is. It’s like those cartoon chase sequences where the scrolling background is on a loop. Here, the characters are on a loop, and the backgrounds change. We discover that Eddie’s greatest aspiration is to open up a cake-making business, primarily for children’s birthdays. In another movie, this might be employed for a subplot about how the primary character, allegedly good, is actually a ticking timebomb of a pedophile. However, this movie’s a bit smarter than that.
Director Richard Donner (Superman, Superman II, the Lethal Weapon movies) has enough experience inventing clichÃ©s to know which ones to avoid… sometimes. If he does open a bakery, we won’t feel entirely as though our heartstrings have been manipulatively tugged… or at least we’ll accept a little bit of the tugging. Not because of our social preference for happy endings, but because the development of Eddie’s character for its own sake is a better story than using his aspirations as merely an acquainting mechanism to be exploited in an anti-ending made artificially more tense.
What does work, though to a lesser extent than I would have liked to see, is Mos Def’s performance as Eddie. Sure, it’s a bit much with his over-the-top geek affectation, but the character is otherwise genuinely likeable as you get to know him. There’s a scene that most action directors would have cut out: Eddie is looking at the pictures in Mosley’s apartment, mumbling to himself about what these people must be like. He works his way to the bathroom, and looks at himself in the mirror. His look isn’t one of confidence, or self-reassurance, but of uncertainty. Can he get past who he is?
Can Mosley? I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that the beleaguered protagonist of an action/chase/hostage movie does rise above himself. The thing you don’t know, and what makes this film rise slightly, though not entirely, above the others is how that unfolds. It’s not impossible to see coming. However, contrary to what audiences have come to accept, a film isn’t simply about its ending.
But this film is only superficially good, I’m afraid. That being said, it serves its purpose to entertain and be forgotten in time for the next action film to occupy your mind for another 105 minutes.
16 Blocks â€¢ DolbyÂ® Digital surround sound in select theatres â€¢ Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 â€¢ Running Time: 105 minutes â€¢ MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, intense sequences of action, and some strong language. â€¢ Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures