Movies can still surprise you. Sometimes when you hear about the plot of an upcoming film, it sounds a bit tired. Broken down white cop is paired with talkative black petty thief. Wow, that's original. Corrupt NYPD tries to cover up it's shady dealings. Not exactly new. But when good actors, a director who knows action and tension, and a pretty decent script are thrown in the mix, you can actually come up with an entertaining, if not spectacular, movie. Such is the case with 16 Blocks, something fun and interesting to throw on the DVD player this summer. Jack Mosely (Bruce Willis) is a burnt-out, alcoholic New York City detective just marking time until, well, death. You can't say that Willis is cast against type exactly, he just played a raccoon in Over the Hedge, but he's moved a long way from John McClane of Die Hard days. Jack is given assignments like baby-sitting the corpses of two murdered drug dealers in their grimy apartment while the real detectives go try to find the killers. That's no problem for him, he simply rifles through their cupboards and finds a bottle of booze, which he cradles in his arms like a baby while he reads the paper. After a long night of drinking and sitting, a worn out Jack is given an assignment to transport a prisoner from the lock-up in his station to the courthouse 16 blocks away.
The prisoner, Eddie Bunker (the excellent Mos Def), is Jack's opposite in every way. Hyper, talkative, and upbeat despite his situation. Def moves easily from his fine supporting roles on television and in The Italian Job and The Woodsman to give a breakout performance. His Eddie must carry the early part of the movie because Jack is so hungover and worn out that he is nearly mute. Eddie is a motor-mouth without getting annoying and has no problem sharing his philosophies and his dream of getting his testimony over with so he can get on with his life as a baker to the clearly uninterested Jack.
Of course, you can't have a chase movie if everything goes according to plan. As Jack attempts to move Eddie the requisite 16 blocks, two hitmen appear and we learn that some powerful people don't want Eddie to give his testimony. The peril shakes Jack out of his stupor and soon he and Eddie are on the run, dodging a swarm of cops led by Jack's old partner Frank (David Morse). How hard can it be for two men to move a few city blocks without being seen? Pretty damn hard, apparently. Frank and Jack spend the rest of the movie using what they know about each other to anticipate moves and we begin to see that Jack must have been a pretty decent cop, back in the day.
Director Richard Donner (the good Superman movies, Lethal Weapon ) does a nice job keeping the tension and suspense on high. The running time, if you take out the ending credits, is a little more than 90 minutes, just about perfect for this type of action flick. He also puts together good performances by the leads to build some empathy and a rooting interest in the two men. Eddie's philosophy is that everything happens the way it is supposed to and that it is all part of the plan. This begins to seep into Jack, who starts out the film stating that "life is too long." That's anathema to Eddie and we learn that just as Jack is saving Eddie by protecting him, Eddie is also showing Jack that people can change, it's never too late. Such cliched material might cause cringes in less sure hands than Willis and Def, but here it works nicely.
While on the way to being a top notch action picture, a wrench gets thrown in the works and although the machine keeps clunking along, it's not quite the same. Screenwriter Richard Wenk, who appears to be mostly a B-movie director, has given us two likeable characters, good dialogue, a great premise, and some pulsing excitement. He just can't close the deal. It's always a bit of a requirement to suspend your disbelief in movies like this, but the last third strains it to the breaking point. It doesn't help that after an hour of moving forward, he has Jack and Eddie stranded on a bus, bringing the action and tension to a screeching halt. The whole set piece just seems ridiculous and the movie never totally recovers.
Still, the few problems only keep it from being a very good movie. It's still a good and entertaining movie. Def will hopefully join the ranks of top young actors and Willis shows that, given the right script, director and co-stars, he's capable of some very nice work. Spend a Saturday night in the near future watching a rising star, an old vet, and seasoned director breathe a little life into an old genre. Especially considering that the movie itself is a nice surprise, the disc itself is something of a dud with a really paltry list of extras. There is no commentary by either Director Richard Donner or Screenwriter Richard Wenk. There isn’t even a cursory making-of featurette. I’m pretty sure HBO aired one around the time this movie hit the big screen, so what gives? I'm not saying this film needs a 2-disc treatment, but, as Bill Murray might say, how about a little something, you know, for the effort.
Enough of what they don’t have, let’s let the inner-Eddie in all of us out and focus on the positive. There is a theatrical trailer. You can also get the dialogue in French and subtitles in French or Spanish. So……that’s something. More substantially is an alternate ending. You can watch the alternate ending separately as an extra or run the whole film and watch it with the alternate ending. It is introduced by Donner and Wenk who note that this is actually the original ending, the one shown in theaters is truly the "alternate" ending. The other ending isn't much better than the one we saw in the released film, but it's interesting addition.
The only other extras are a half dozen deleted scenes. They were mostly cut to streamline the action and not waste too much time in moving the characters from point A to point B. Donner and Wenk do commentary on all the scenes and they are somewhat entertaining. Donner has a dry sense of humor. My only quibble is that the commentary isn't optional. You can't just watch the scenes and listen to the dialogue. You are forced to listen to the commentary and read the actual scene dialogue in subtitles. I'm sure the technology exists to provide both commentary and un-commentary deleted scenes and it wouldn't have made the extras menu look so barren.
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