Almost every major movie star has an archetype they can comfortably fall back on when needed. This not only serves to appease their most ardent fans, but helps keep them gainfully employed. The danger, of course, comes when their personal archetype grows stale or, worse, lapses into self-parody.
This has already happened to Harrison Ford, who’s played the grizzled, desperate, angry family man who must save his loved ones so many times that his fans are clamoring for a divorce. Exhibit A: Firewall, which not only fizzled at the box office, but was generally derided by critics. (Ford’s only hope for career rejuvenation: The new Indiana Jones project.) And if Bruce Willis isn’t careful, a similar fate will befall him.
Run, don’t walk: Willis and Def
Willis’s cinema archetype, in case you haven’t seen any of his work since Moonlighting, is the depressed, down-on-his-luck, alcoholic police detective who finds redemption before the end credit roll. Unlike Ford, who keeps making the same film over and over again, Willis keeps things fresh by placing his character in projects that are as tonally distinctive as they are frequently cutting edge. Witness the inventive and bracing Sin City or the extravagantly over-the-top Fifth Element. As for the Die Hard films, another one of which is apparently in the works, yes they are big, boomy action fests that Willis instills with determination, gravity and focused heroics, but answer this: Deep down you know if you were ever in an extremely volatile, dangerous situation, you’d want someone like Willis’s John McClane on the job, saving your ass.
In 16 Blocks, Willis trots his archetype out yet for another spin, but in a narrative framework that is surprisingly compact and intimate. The playing field isn’t an airport runway or a skyscraper, it’s a mere 16 city blocks in downtown Manhattan. On the other hand, 16 blocks in NYC — with its snarled traffic, and constant, aggressive bustle of harried, hurried, snarling pedestrians — is hardly a quaint game of hopscotch.
Willis plays Jack Mosley, an NYPD detective who’s lost all faith in himself, in the system, in life, in love, in… well, you name it, he’s lost all faith in it. He keeps himself in a perpetual Jack Daniels-induced haze and seems content to steer clear of any genuine police action. (When we first meet him, he’s ordered to babysit a crime scene. So he just sits by himself on the couch, dead bodies strewn around the apartment floor, and has a pull of whiskey.) At first we don’t know the reason behind Mosley’s malaise, but it’s eventually made clear in Richard Wenk’s elegantly crafted screenplay. And when it is, everything that wasn’t making sense about 16 Blocks suddenly clicks snugly into place.
The action commences when Mosley is assigned to escort a witness — Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) — from the jailhouse to the courthouse. There, a grand jury awaits testimony that will incriminate a number of corrupt police on the force, including Mosley’s former partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse). Nugent, along with a small army of heavies, tries to kill Bunker. Mosley counters them at every turn, making a valiant effort to save Bunker’s hide and get him to the courthouse before a 10 a.m. deadline. A game of cat-and-mouse with bullets, lots and lots of bullets, the storyline resembles a compressed, streamlined season of 24, with one life-threatening, seemingly unresolvable situation morphing into the next. Director Richard Donner takes us to the edge of a thrill, only to be whisked back by the scruff of our necks in the nick of time.
16 Blocks features one too many shell-game deceptions from Donner, who misdirects our attention like a Las Vegas illusionist. And yet, miraculously enough, the reveals still manage to surprise. Donner, having sworn off the Lethal Weapon series like an addict forever finished with the crackpipe, is in top form. His polished, gusto-filled movie has a robustness, a juicy full-steam-ahead quality that never flags. It earns the right to be called vastly entertaining.
16 Blocks derives much of its vast entertainment value less from the action set pieces, and more from the smart and agile interplay between Eddie and Jack, opposites who develop the requisite seedling of friendship and trust critical to the success of films from this genre. The payoff is huge — it’s hard not to get all choked up in the final few minutes.
Willis — weary and drawn, and looking older than he should — brings fine redemptive power to Mosley. David Morse remains low-key throughout — he’s an effective, calculating bad guy. Unfortunately, a climactic rant is pitched at Al Pacino levels, and is more laughable than unnerving.
Mos Def gives his most engaging performance to date — erasing all memories of the debacle that was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His Eddie is a slightly comedic, motormouth thug with a sincere desire to change his tiger stripes. We get a glimpse of that tiger’s ferocious nature, however, when Eddie jams a gun to a detective’s throat, his slightly goofy features abating, becoming a blazing mask of white-hot hate. “How does it feel?” he whispers, malevolently, in the movie’s most chilling — and revealing — moment. “How does it feel?” For us, at least, it feels great.