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16 Blocks Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 August 2006

Image Jack Moseley (Bruce Willis) is an aging, burned-out and booze-sodden New York cop shuffling remotely through his daily police duties. When Moseley is entrusted with transporting prisoner Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) the sixteen blocks uptown to the courthouse, he finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. Eddie is the prime witness in an internal investigation into police corruption and a group of corrupt cops want him killed. Cornered by the dirty cops, who are led by Jack’s ex-partner (David Morse), Jack is given the chance to hand over Eddie and walk away, but he’s driven by some instinctive, long-buried moral courage and escapes with his prisoner. From there, Jack and Eddie must dodge the bad cops as well as the forces of justice who have been lead to believe Jack has run amok.

This high-concept thriller has a simple and memorable premise (ala “Phone Booth”) but lacks the script needed to make it work. The basic idea becomes extremely contrived within a half hour into the film and one is always aware of the schematic purpose of each scene. To stretch out such a short journey, the duo are constantly ducking into apartment buildings for obvious character development scenes. This small crowded section of the city barely reacts to the multiple shoot-outs and constant mayhem engulfing it. (“16 Blocks” was filmed almost entirely in Toronto and the production does an admirable job of making it appear like New York.) Perhaps a longer journey would have made more sense and made the story easier to work out (40 blocks?), but the piling up of so much convenience and contrivance sinks it by the end. As a result, twists near the climax don’t have the impact they’re supposed to, because by then, the audience has had enough of the constant manipulation. Willis (cast in an atypical role) is effective and believable, but the weight and torpor he exhibits in some parts of the film don’t manifest themselves throughout the film. His natural tendency to play with a wry smirk distracts from an otherwise solid piece of acting. Morse is riveting as Willis’s nemesis and scenes between the two are exciting and involving. Mos Def overplays his character, saddling him with a quirky, “ghetto” accent that makes him seem mentally retarded. The combination of his motor-mouthed wisecracks (echoes of Joe Pesci’s character in Donner’s “Lethal Weapon 2”) and the accent makes him an extremely grating, annoying character. Since we’re supposed to care about his fate, it’s highly doubtful that this is what the filmmakers were going for. His character, oddly enough is called “Eddie Bunker,” the name of the late ex-con who became a writer and actor (writing “Straigt Time” and appearing as Mr. Blue in “Reservoir Dogs.”)

Richard Donner directs with focus and intensity, but his efforts are undercut by the underwhelming script. Several scenes in the picture (like Willis’ first violent act and the bar confrontation) are directed with real snap, and a few scenes evince gripping acting, choice details and a palpable sense of excitement and tension which, if anything show that Donner (at an astonishing 76 years of age) is still at the top of his game. The energy is simply misplaced on this first-draft quality script; Donner really deserves better material.

The HD DVD transfer is flawless and the rock solid, stable image presentation exhibits pristine levels of sharpness and detail. The majority of the film takes place on crowded streets with a deep level of focus and sharpness. One is able to discern tiny details in Willis’s aged and weary make-up (and the near absence of it in a late scene) along with every bead of sweat and greasy windshield. The extra level of facial detail enhances ones appreciation of the performances (especially Morse’s) where every slight facial movement comes across clearly. The sound design is extremely polished and every sequence has been given a different sonic presence and atmosphere. The focus and amplification of background sounds and the clarity given the dialogue have all been well-thought out and mixed with a high level of artistry. The Dolby Digital Plus track (via Optical) is completely up to the task of this challenging mix and is presented in a rich, robust manner with gunshots and sudden sound effects pinging and bursting around the full 5.1 surround field. The audio level is consistent and once set to match the dialogue never needs to be re-adjusted.

This combo HD DVD/DVD disc features the DVD edition (with the extras presented only on that side) on the opposite side of the disc. The transfer is top notch for a DVD, but looks soft and is missing the detail and stability of the HD DVD side.

Included are 19 mins 50s of deleted and extended scenes. The scenes themselves are all well-deserved cuts and don’t offer any real revelations, but there’s an amusing line or two. Unfortunately, while the introductions and comments by director Donner and screenwriter Richard Wenk are amusing, (Wenk and Donner have a fun repartee) there’s no option to view the scenes without their comments, and a pop-up video window of them speaking appears intermittently. The scenes are presented subtitled as a consolation, but trying to read the subtitles while ignoring the chatter is a bit of a chore. It’s an unpolished way to view these scenes and ends up more distracting than interesting because of it.

The alternate ending isn’t really different or shocking, per se, but it alters the staging of the climax, and adds a more final resolution to one character’s fate. It’s a lesser ending than the one in the film (and looks rushed and unpolished in staging) but it’s not as corny. What’s surprisingly awkward is the welcome option to view the film with either ending. In this regard, the DVD side appears better, as the option is not offered at all on the HD DVD side, which is probably due to the early nature of the HD DVD format. Seamless branching may not be ready for prime time on HD DVD yet, but perhaps this title should have been re-scheduled when those hardware and programming considerations were worked out? Providing the inferior DVD side with an alternate version of the feature doesn’t really promote the greatness and flexibility of HD DVD, but as far as the presentation of the feature, the HD DVD side can’t be beat.

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