'16 Blocks': Let's Shoot at Bruce Willis

Cop Bruce Willis and witness Mos Def navigate
Cop Bruce Willis and witness Mos Def navigate "16 Blocks" of corruption, SWAT teams and attempts on their lives in New York City. (By Barry Wetcher)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

In "16 Blocks," Bruce Willis trips the heavy fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.

This feeble thriller is so full of implausibilities it makes Willis's last star vehicle, "Hostage," seem like a documentary on advanced thermodynamics. Hard to believe it hails from the once-steady hand of director Richard Donner, never more than a clever hack but at least a craftsman of some merit. (Big hits: "The Omen" and the "Lethal Weapon" series; on the other hand, "Timeline" and "Conspiracy Theory.")

Donner is old enough to know better. Conceived as a kind of real-time lung-crusher, the movie follows as aging, dispirited cop Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is assigned a strictly routine task -- to escort small-time crook Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) 16 blocks across Lower Manhattan to testify before a grand jury in two hours' time. What neither of them realizes is that the guy Eddie's about to blow the whistle on is a cop, and if he's indicted, that cop will rat out an elite group of detectives led by Jack's ex-partner Frank Nugent (David Morse, in a white hipster's chin fur). So the cops, after their own hired guns have failed, must improvise a series of assassination attempts along what is basically the Chinese New Year parade route to wipe out Eddie and, if necessary, Jack. To make things more complicated, they will subvert the police force from inside, hanging out Jack as a madman.

Hmmm. Remind anyone of Clint Eastwood's utterly brainless 1977 loser "The Gauntlet," which featured bad cops also subverting the system from within, forcing Eastwood and a witness (Sondra Locke) to ride a bus through town while every lawman in Phoenix county fired away at them? It was -- until now, apparently -- the only movie ever made whose central idea was: How many bullet holes can a bus take before it can no longer legitimately be called a bus?

That dim scene is repeated in "16 Blocks," where dozens of SWAT guys pepper the crosstown iron with hundreds of bullets. Swiss cheese? Lace doily? Bonnie and Clyde death car? Meanwhile, inside, as in "The Gauntlet," nobody gets seriously hurt. Who's doing the shooting -- Cheney?

In fact, the movie is really a series of implausible misses. Not only do Eddie and Jack manage to dodge the many angry objects sailing through the air at a thousand feet per second, they . . . escape. Yes, a bus, surrounded by SWAT gunners, snipers, tear-gas dispensers, uniforms and cop cars in downtown New York simply drives through the blizzard of gunfire, smashing black-and-white Crown Victorias left and right until it's "out of range" and both its passengers can sneak off.

The movie is too full of such nonsense. In one absurd moment, the two guys are cornered by a locked gate; Big Bruce kicks it and the padlock conveniently flies off and the chain drops to the ground. Or they miraculously find themselves in an underground passage that leads out by a secret door.

And when he's not escaping, Willis's character is endangering dozens, even hundreds of civilians. The bus trick is just one such caper. Though he's the movie's "good guy," he takes the bus hostage at gunpoint. The movie hasn't an iota of interest in the terror of the passengers, who after all have no idea that Willis is a cop and a good guy. To them, he's al-Qaeda. And he's continually forcing himself on innocent people in his race to survive, expecting us to sympathize with him because we know he's a movie star.

Donner has one other equally lame trick. This is ye olde bait and switch. It was the weakest moment in "The Silence of the Lambs," when Jonathan Demme cut between a SWAT team gearing up to raid a small house outside and Buffalo Bill's scary preparations for slaughter inside; only when the cops kicked in the door did we realize that Buffalo Bill was actually in an Ohio village several hundred miles to the east and it wasn't SWAT boys knocking on the door but Jodie Foster's poor, outmatched Clarice Starling.

To his credit, Demme did this only once, then, as if he were embarrassed by it, never tried again. Donner does it no fewer than four times in "16 Blocks" -- once every four blocks! -- establishing a geographical relationship between raiders and quarry, only to reveal at the last moment that he intentionally misled us. That's pretty much it for suspense.

"16 Blocks" plays much better as humor. Willis and Mos Def work toward an amusing relationship, not quite as jagged as the banter thing between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" films, but consistently amusing. But Donner undercuts this with an odd convention; all the way through, all the cops keep referring to Eddie as "the kid." The kid? The guy is 32 years old and has the face of an adult. I don't believe it's racist, it's just illogical. You wouldn't call anyone that old a kid.

It seems such a waste to go onto the actual streets of Lower Manhattan and shoot a movie this stupid. Think of the money, the logistics, the interruptions in the city's life -- all that trouble for what? For this? For shame.

16 Blocks (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense action scenes, violence and strong language, though it's not particularly gory.

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