16 BLOCKS (2006)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mos Def (a.k.a. Yasiin Bey), David Morse
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 56%

PLOT: An aging alcoholic cop (Willis) is assigned the task of escorting a witness (Mos Def) from police custody to a courthouse 16 blocks away. However, chaotic forces are at work to prevent them from making it in one piece.

“Genre film.”  To some people, these may be considered dirty words.  They conjure up painful memories of poor-to-middling films like Red Heat, Beastmaster, Con Air, Deep Impact, Cliffhanger, ad infinitum.

However, let us not forget that people who were just trying to make a simple genre film also gave us Star Wars and Jaws and Casablanca.

With 16 Blocks, veteran director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Superman) takes a familiar story – gently re-using elements from 3:10 to Yuma, if you ask me – and delivers a respectable genre film: solid, if somewhat predictable, entertainment.  Call it a compromise between Casablanca and Commando.

If Bruce Willis had not been cast, this movie would probably not have been made.  With genre films, you want archetypes, actors who embody the characters without having to say a word if they don’t have to.  That’s our Bruce.  When you first see him on screen, nursing a hangover, eyes half-closed, trudging wearily step by step, you don’t need a lot of plot exposition.  We’re there.

Where this movie mildly elevates its formula is in the casting of Mos Def as Eddie Bunker, the federal witness whom Willis is tasked with protecting.  I’m speculating here, but I’m guessing that Mos Def was probably no one’s first choice for the role.  On the page, the script is crying out for a comedian: Chris Rock, maybe even Eddie Murphy, or Dave Chappelle.  Instead, the producers went with the “hot hand”, Mos Def, a former hip-hop artist, riding high on high-profile roles in several recent hits.  Despite his modest popularity, he is still not the obvious choice.

But make no mistake: Mos Def is what makes this movie work.  His Eddie Bunker character has this amazing, indescribable accent, somewhere between the nasal whining of a Beastie boy and Billy Ray Valentine from Trading Places.  His job is to be as annoying as possible to his minder, and he succeeds.  But he is also somehow able to make Eddie likable and even relatable.  He claims he’s in prison by mistake (of course), but he has plans to open a bakery when he gets out…because he learned to bake in prison.  I love that, I don’t know why.

The film hurls this odd couple from one situation to the next as it unspools almost in real time.  In the course of all this hurling, they encounter that most reliable of screen clichés: bad guys who can’t shoot straight while the good guys are nearly perfect marksmen.  Predictable.  Not to mention the bad guy who monologues just a LITTLE too long, the ability for the good guy to somehow out-think the bad guys even with a monster hangover, the good guy who (gasp!) turns out to be a bad guy…most movie clichés are out in full force here.

But it works.  It’s not Heat, but it’s not The Golden Child either.  It’s fun, a not-quite-guilty pleasure that hits all the buttons on time and on target.  Predictable, yes.  But fun.

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