16 Blocks (review)

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City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks…

A few weeks ago I found myself in a pit of despair over Firewall, the new Harrison Ford movie that’s pretty much the same Harrison Ford movie we’ve been subjected to every year for the last decade. How could Ford keep doing this to us? Isn’t he as bored as we are with the routine of it all? I wanted to review the film but couldn’t even work up the enthusiasm to trash it — there seemed to be nothing to be said about The Strange Case of the Movie Star Who Refused to Go Softly Into That Good Night that hadn’t already been said.
But then I saw 16 Blocks, and suddenly there was something worth saying about Firewall, and it is this: Mr. Ford, take a look at Bruce Willis in 16 Blocks. This is how you do it. This is how you acknowledge that while you may still be virile and totally fuckable and the dream of any hotblooded American gal, you are no longer 25. Or 35. Or even 45. This is what you do: you let yourself look like you’re not a Hollywood megastar. Today, Willis (Sin City, Hostage) is where Ford was ten years ago, and he looks to be avoiding the sad mistakes Ford made. (I say these things with great sorrow: Ford was pretty much my first movie crush, and I’d like to say that he’s still on my list of Perpetual Boyfriends, but it ain’t so.) So Willis’s NYPD cop, Jack Mosley, is old and tired and paunchy, and of course it’s all either makeup or deliberate artistic going-to-pot, because Willis still looks damn good offscreen and even in one particular scene in the film that is all about him getting his shit together and recovering from being such a miserable fuck. But the looking-like-crap is, you know, for the craft — it’s okay, and we forgive it. No, more than forgiving it, we love it. It works: you get to have your movie-star cake and eat it, too.

Cuz 16 Blocks is still a slam-bang killer action flick, even if it represents some behind-the-camera reconsidering too, for director Richard Donner (Timeline, Lethal Weapon 4). For the whole buddy-cop-blow-‘em-up, actually. The concept is a hilarious reversal of one bit in Willis’s Die Hard: With a Vengeance: he is assigned the should-be ludicrously easy task of transporting a prisoner to a court date at NYC’s downtown judicial center 16 blocks away from his stationhouse, and he’s got 118 minutes to complete the job. (Remember Die Hard 3’s “90 blocks in 30 minutes in New York traffic”? You’re supposed to.) Of course, it’s not easy: the prisoner, Eddie Bunker (the spectacularly good Mos Def: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), turns out to have the goods on some bad cops and is on his way to testify against them, and the bad cops aren’t going to let that happen. Jack has his 118 minutes cut out for him.

And yet, 16 Blocks isn’t a comedy, and there’s no snarky hay made of the Die Hard provenance… or, maybe it’s more like 16 Blocks goes all the way around from snark to serious, starts out like it’s gonna rag on Die Hard and ends up being way more thoughtful and actually even sorta solemn about dirty cops, systemic corruption, and how damn exhausting New York City can be.

There’s little stuff, like how the whole world slows down for a bullet, not in a Michael Bay ain’t-guns-cool kinda way but more like it surely must be in a real life, how a gun going off would be genuinely surprising and shocking (most NYPD cops never fire their guns in anger in their entire careers — gun battles are not the everyday occurrence that, um, Die Hard movies would have us believe). Like how it doesn’t matter that the trailer reveals that David Morse (Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, Hearts in Atlantis) is the Head Bad Cop, because that’s hardly a matter of suspense here like it would have been in a lesser film. (The brilliant script, by Richard Wenk, is about so much more than whodunnit.) Like how something like the super-crowded sidewalks, ridiculously teeming for an absurdly early hour of the post-dawn, feels not like it comes from the hands of a creative team who doesn’t understand New York City but from one that does, filmmakers willing to play with metaphoric exaggeration as a kind of extension of the claustrophobia that Die Hard: With a Vengeance found in the city.

The upshot is that 16 Blocks feels like a dramatic advance for the action movie: it’s frenetic and measured at the same time. It plays with movie chronology, unreeling almost in real time while it also crams too much into a mere couple hours as another way of making you feel rushed and crushed and harried. It’s an antiaction movie in a lot of ways, finding its most exciting moments in its most quiet ones. It’s a renewal of the buddy action flick that creates a new star in Mos Def and breathes new life into an established one in Bruce Willis.

If Firewall made me despair of the modern action movie, 16 Blocks gives me delicious new hope that the genre still has a long ways to go… as long as it doesn’t rest on decade-old laurels and tries something new.

Watch 16 Blocks online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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