Richard Donner | 98 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Germany & USA / English | 12 / PG-13
A Bruce Willis action movie? You know what you’re in for here, don’t you? Well, not quite. 16 Blocks casts Willis as less John McClane and more John McCane: old, fat, drunk, limping. He’s a copper still, but the kind of detective whose primary duties are being left to watch over an apartment full of bodies until uniform can show up.
The conceit of the film is that this man is assigned to transport a witness the mere 16 blocks from the police station to the courthouse. Some corrupt cops don’t want him to. Normally Willis would just fold and let them… but, for whatever reason, he decides enough is enough, and it becomes a battle against time and said former-friends to get Mos Def’s witness to testify.
I love a real-time thriller; I don’t know what it is about that concept, but I love it. (I was in heaven for years thanks to 24, until they seemed to stop caring about anything approaching realism.) For that reason, I wish 16 Blocks had hewn closer to its premise. Having to traverse precisely 16 blocks in real-time? There’s a precision in that the film could have exploited. Instead it pretty quickly abandons the notion that they’re traversing exactly 16 blocks — they go up, down, sideways, possibly even backwards; no one actually keeps count, despite it being the bloody title! And it’s sort of in real-time because, well, it can’t really avoid it. But I think it could have played on both of these factors more, and I think it would’ve been better for it.
For me, it really lost its way just over an hour in, when our heroes (spoilers!) end up in a hostage situation on a bus. It’s not bad, but it feels like writer Richard Wenk (who’s gone on to co-write heights of culture like The Mechanic and The Expendables 2) ran out of ways to keep the setup going, so jumped on a new one. Plus in many respects the characters that populate the high-concept are just stereotypes. There’s the useless drunk cop who suddenly steps up; the wisecracking career small-time crook who wants to turn good; David Morse playing the kind of role he always plays (well, he is good at it). At least casting action-man Willis as the drunk copper gives it a different flavour, and Mos Def gives his usual surprisingly-good turn as the crook.
For fans of an action-thriller (something which I most definitely am), 16 Blocks is a very solid entry in the genre. It doesn’t pay out too heavily in twists (though I get the impression the makers think it does), but there’s still an occasional mild unpredictability and a certain speed to proceedings that keep it engaging. Still, I can’t help but feel a more high-concept rendering of the opening conceit would’ve yielded stronger results.