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The F*cking Black Sheep: 16 Blocks (2006)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

16 BLOCKS (2006)

DIRECTED BY RICHARD DONNER

F*ck yes! We’re only what…T-minus about 12 hours until badass Bruce Willis grants us all a big-screen DEATH WISH. How many of you already have you tickets in tow?!

Many I really hope this movie pans out well. Not only as a fervent fan of the original, not only as an ardent supporter of Eli Roth, but mainly concerning Willis himself, who, let’s face it, has seen the high-wattage of his luminous action star-power fade a bit in recent years. Hate to say it, or even ask, but how many of you even recall, much less seen, recent Willis’ releases like THE PRINCE, VICE, PRECIOUS CARGO, EXTRACTION, FIRST KILL, ACTS OF VIOLENCE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE and a whole slew of others? I realize the man turns 63 this month, but damn, for an all time A-list action movie star, that’s sort of slumming it a bit. Here’s hoping his newest doesn’t equate to a career DEATH WISH!

Then again, as many downright detested it at the time, Willis was able to overcome the curious “Inaction” film 16 BLOCKS. The great Dick Donner not so much, but Willis rebounded just fine on his way back to LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD a year later. And that brings us at the topic of the day. Point blank, 16 BLOCKS is a F*cking Black Sheep of a Bruce Willis movie, precisely because it’s less of an expected action movie and more of a contemplative character study. Taken further, I’d submit 16 BLOCKS features one of Willis’ better all around acting performances. In opinion, the performance is better than the movie itself, and it’s in this context that we’ll try to demonstrate exactly why!

The first thing I admire about 16 BLOCKS is how it boldly bucks type. How easy would it have been for the director of LETHAL WEAPON (Donner) and the star of DIE HARD to simply regurgitate a safe amalgam of both? Too easy. Cynically so. Instead, Donner and Willis chose to essay less of an outright action extravaganza full of pithy one-liners and explosive set-pieces, and instead focus on an aging man’s moral awakening. It’s not quite a midlife crisis as it is a crisis of conscience. I like that distinction a great deal, and give the utmost kudos for Donner and Willis for going against the tried and true expectation of a formula that made both of them major action players (and a ton of dough) in the 80s and 90s.

As for the story, it couldn’t have a simpler or higher concept. Cut from the cloth of other polarizing thrillers like PHONE BOOTH, 88 MINUTES, NICK OF TIME, etc., the story follows Jack Mosely (Willis), a booze addled NYC cop who’s clearly burned the wick to the wax. The look on Willis’ face speaks volumes here, a man wracked by senescent strife, deep deterioration, physically, mentally, professionally. This is so far removed from the Willis action persona, essentially lending Bruce the chance to challenge himself and give a quieter, more thoughtful performance that demands an inward search rather than a boisterously outgoing one. I like this distinction a great deal.

Anyway, Mosley is tasked with transporting a witness named Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) a mere 16 blocks through treacherous New York City, with one cumbersome obstacle after another dogging him at every step. Mosley has only two hours to deliver Bunker to the grand jury hearing, which gives the action a kind of intense ticking-clock scenario. More complicated, as Mosley protects Bunker from a ring of crooked drug-running cops, at one point old Jack admits to his own complicit guilt in the dope-pushing precinct. The great David Morse plays the heavy in the film, Frank Nugent, who cannot and will not allow Willis to transport Bunker to testify against him in one piece. Morse code, yo!

I know that when the film was released, a chief complaint among many was the annoyingly motor-mouthed turn from rapper-cum-actor Yasiin Bey (Mos Def). And I can’t front, that is one shrilly obnoxious vocal tone he lends to his character. The kind Fran Drescher would wince at. But Bunker is otherwise sweet-natured and big-hearted, even if we do wonder if his conning ways are ever really abandoned (is he playing Willis like Eddy Norton did Dick Gere in PRIMAL FEAR?). It’s true that Def’s turn is a distractingly vexing one at times, relentlessly so, and if you let it, can even subtract from the subtle performance Willis gives in opposition. But again, without the sweet-hearted, good-natured character coming into his life at the right time, Mosley never would have suddenly found a conscience and righteously acted on it accordingly. That is, without Bunker, however annoying, Mosley never would have altered his way of life for the better.

Boiled to its essence, I don’t like 16 BLOCKS as a Bruce Willis action film, I like 16 BLOCKS as a Bruce Willis ACTING film. Not just in the decision he made to break ranks from his iconic action persona, but in the actual execution. I’ve never seen Willis as enfeebled, exhausted and vulnerable as he is 16 BLOCKS, playing a tired, crooked, alcoholic cop whose lost sense of ethics comes into sharp focus while protecting an innocent witness. It’s through this prism you might also extend the discussion to the great Dick Donner (THE GOONIES, SUPER MAN, LETHAL WEAPON), who, it would turn out, never made another movie after 16 BLOCKS. We can somewhat equate the Willis’ Mosley character with Donner himself, as a man coming to terms with the past and reconciling a new viewpoint into the future. Mosley can be seen as a meta-meditation of sorts on Donner’s own life…aging, out of touch, even ostracized by his own filmmaking community. I’m not saying this was necessarily intentional from the onset, but the parallels are too apparent to dismiss altogether.

Tying in further, it was just last week when we asked you what your favorite Bruce Willis role was. Not movie, but character. Joe Hallenbeck of THE LAST BOY SCOUT was my honest answer, and remains so. Next comes the obvious reply of John McClane (DIE HARD), followed by Butch Coolidge (PULP FICTION), then maybe Leo (FOUR ROOMS) and vying very tightly for that final Top 5 spot is Jack Mosley from 16 BLOCKS. It’s such a welcomed departure from the stereotypical Willis action hero, ranking right up there with Ernest from DEATH BECOMES HER or even James Cole from TWELVE MONKEYS. And While this isn’t one of Willis’ all time best films, it is one of his all time best performances, and for this reason alone, it’s no real stretch to say 16 BLOCKS has been unjustly cast as F*cking Black Sheep!

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Extra Tidbit: Give us your opinion on 16 BLOCKS below!
Source: AITH

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