By Marc S. Sanders

Bruce Willis is a time traveler from an ugly dystopian future in 12 Monkeys.  His name is James Cole and his mission is to uncover why all but one percent of the world’s human population perished from a mysterious virus in the year 1996. 

Director Terry Gilliam specializes in disorienting his films.  No shot or closeup is well defined.  He’ll position his camera on a slant or he’ll turn it on an uneven axis so that nothing appears completely clear.  In 12 Monkeys, the viewer is as confused as the protagonist, James Cole, along with a psychiatrist he periodically encounters named Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe).  Beyond the camera trickery, the script of the film offers up oddball characters in both Cole’s present time period (the “future”) and in his past.  Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, in his first Oscar nominated role) is one particular weirdo, residing in a mental institution that Cole is entered into when he time traveled back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1990.  During his stay in the loony bin, Cole is talking gibberish to Dr. Railly and her team.  Jeffrey has his own language of nonsense.

Cole’s dreams of himself as a child are intermittently weaved into the final edit of the film.  There’s a woman running after a man, a rapid beep, beep, beep and a gunshot.  Later returns to this dream will provide more clues fleshing out its significance.

It would be easy to have a five-minute conversation and spell out what occurs in 12 Monkeys, but that would be defeating the cleverness of the film.  The achievement of its story relies on the sum of its parts.  Terry Gilliam strategically lays out breadcrumbs with fractional pieces of dialogue, words and pictures that quickly flash in front of you.  It may even hinge on a news story or memorable pieces of music playing on a radio. Still, he also unnerves the characters and the viewer with uncomfortable and sometimes grotesque imagery. 

The first time you watch the film your attention may turn to the long stream of bloody drool hanging from Bruce Willis’ mouth when he shares his first scene with Madeleine Stowe.  Repeat viewings, which I believe only enhance the picture, will have you focus on the nonsensical dialogue that James Cole is continuously uttering.  Other characters are seemingly disruptive to your concentration, particularly the herky jerky behavior of Brad Pitt’s character, but their purpose is essential to a mystery that has left the world of the future in a tailspin where the last of the human race lives underground while animal wildlife roam the cities above.  Furthermore, who or what can explain the enigma behind a team of people perhaps known as The Army Of The 12 Monkeys?

12 Monkeys is a very weird and very unusual kind of science fiction film and that is its crowning achievement.  I have spoken before of how sometimes a movie can not be determined as a success until it reaches its climax, say the last five minutes of its running time.  Terry Gilliam’s picture is one such example.  Gilliam has a keen sense of foreshadowing with tactical layering of complexity.  He is wise with how everything neatly unravels at just the right moment. The answers to the mysteries that James Cole pursues eventually rise to the surface, reminding us that everything was right under our nose the whole time. 

I recall the elation I had the first time I saw the film in theaters.  On repeat viewings, I grin at how the movie is assembled.  Quick references that seem like blink and you miss it moments add up to a satisfying conclusion in Terry Gilliam’s film.  My colleague, Miguel, and I both agree on the time travel motif in 12 Monkeys.  It is one of those rare occasions where the science built within the story’s fiction seems to make sense.  Too often time travel movies paint themselves into a corner and can’t escape the gaping plot holes they leave behind.  Yet the different time settings of 12 Monkeys cooperate with themselves.  Because the film doesn’t color outside of its lines, its worth applauding how ingenious the picture truly is from beginning to end.

12 Monkeys may require your patience the first time you watch it.  It’s not a comfortable journey.  However, you’ll be glad you stayed with it as the story answers its own questions.

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.