It's been a long, distinguished, interesting career for director Richard Donner. After toiling in the TV trenches for over two decades, Donner finally hit it big with his first blockbuster, 'The Omen' in 1976. Then it was followed by a string of hits that turned him into one of the biggest Hollywood directors of the '70s and '80s, including 'Superman,' 'The Goonies,' the 'Lethal Weapon' series and 'Scrooged.' Alas, since then the '90s and beyond haven't been too kind to Donner, with such duds as 'Radio Flyer,' 'Conspiracy Theory' and 'Assassins' reducing his commercial cachet, which hit its nadir with the 2003 mega-flop 'Timeline.' So with this year's '16 Blocks,' which proved to be a minor hit this past January, it seemed Donner made if not for a return to form, than at least a return to making the kind of dependable, mainstream flicks he is best known for.
In '16 Blocks,' Bruce Willis stars as Jack Mosley, who is the textbook definition of the burnt-out cop. Cynical, apathetic and an alcoholic, he is assigned the unenviable task of transporting fast-talking convict Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from jail to a courthouse only a mile away. But Bunker's testimony is going to put six bad cops away -- and there are some within the police force that don't want that to happen. And when Mosley thwarts a botched hit on Bunker, the chase is on -- this mismatched pair have only one hour to traverse sixteen blocks and get to the courthouse alive. Which is easier said than done when the entire New York police department wants them both dead.
'16 Blocks' is a great concept for a movie. Self-contained, with a built-in ticking clock, and mismatched protagonists, it is a nice twist on the standard buddy-cop flick. It also plays a bit like a more serious update of '48 Hours,' with of course Willis taking on the Nick Nolte role, and Mos Def filling in the formidable shoes of Eddie Murphy. But what's interesting about '16 Blocks' is how Willis and Def, as well as Donner, take great care to turn Mosley and Bunker into more than wisecracking caricatures. Even what should be a stock villain, corrupt police chief Frank Nugent (David Morse), is given unusual shadings and a genuinely surprising moral reversal near film's end. If '16 Blocks' ultimately doesn't quite work as an in-depth character study, at least it tries to be more than just another dumb action flick.
Unfortunately, if '16 Blocks' is a suspenseful, entertaining film, I never thought it achieved all it could have. Admittedly, part of the problem for me is the casting. While Morse is always solid and Mos Def really surprised (though his vocal tics got so repetitive that I started to hope Willis would shoot him at the end just to shut him up), I felt Willis was miscast. There is something about his vocal delivery and physical mannerisms that makes him look like he is smirking even when he isn't. I think Willis is great when he's playing the wise-ass cop, such as in the 'Die Hard' films, but here he's all wrong for a grizzled, middle-aged slouch. It just didn't play for me, and I never really believed in his character. Which, since he is in every scene in the film, is a pretty big handicap.
Still, I give Donner points for being such a vital filmmaker five decades into his career. Many directors half his age are making far less urgent movies, and you get the feeling Donner cares about every frame of '16 Blocks.' Though I only liked this movie, and didn't love it, I hope its minor success at the box office keeps Donner in the Hollywood game for as many films as he has left in him.
'16 Blocks' looks quite lovely on HD DVD. Presented in its original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the image is very natural, rich and detailed. Though a tad bit stylized, this transfer still retains a very realistic appearance. Contrast has a very slight bleached-out look, perhaps to give the film a grittier appearance, but it is not overdone, nor does it hamper sharpness. Much of the film also looks very three-dimensional, with fine details visible even in long shots crammed with action. And since this is a new release, the source material is sparkling, about as close to perfect as can be.
If I have any complaint -- more an observation, really -- it is that colors are a just a hair short of fully saturated for my taste. Certainly, hues look rock solid on this transfer -- fleshtones are a perfect shade of orange, and again even fine textures like Bruce Willis' wrinkles are clearly visible. However, I personally would have liked slightly stronger colors, but perhaps it was an aesthetic choice on the part of the filmmakers, so I'll chalk up my complaint to personal bias.
Somewhat surprising for a new release, Warner has elected not to produce a TrueHD Dolby soundtrack for '16 Blocks' (I would think it would be more feasible to produce TrueHD tracks for recent films rather than catalog titles, but what do I know?) Instead, we get a perfectly fine Dolby Digital-Plus surround option, though it is only good, not great.
First, the positives are many. '16 Blocks' benefits from very considered sound design, with a fine ear for subtlety. Though there is action in the film, it really is more about character, and great attention is paid to how dialogue is reproduced. I appreciated the expansive dynamic range, which made even minute aural details like whispered dialogue and minor ambient sounds readily apparent. Dialogue is also perfectly balanced in the mix and never overwhelmed by all the gunfire. The rather minimal score is also well integrated throughout.
However, when the action does kick in, this mix falls flat. It is very front-heavy, with most sounds localized away from the surrounds. Aside from the spare gunshot and odd sound effect, the soundfield is rarely enveloping. Even the score doesn't get much play in the rears. I guess there is nothing wrong with this -- not every mix should feature effects whizzing all over the place -- but in the case of a film with thrilling action scenes like this one, it is a bit unusual.
Another combo DVD/HD DVD disc from Warner (the studio's third so far), it's also another frustrating flipper, with all of the extra features only included on the standard DVD side of the disc. Though in the case of '16 Blocks,' I suppose that isn't such a bad thing, because there are so few supplements anyway you won't miss much if you forget to flip the disc over.
Nope, no commentary, nor any making-of featurettes here -- all we get is a rather lengthy 20-minute assemblage of deleted scenes, eight in all. But this one is a bit more interactive than usual, with director Richard Donner and screenwriter Richard Wenk guiding us through each one. Unfortunately, that means that the pair talk over the scenes so dialogue is obscured, and sometimes even the image itself -- a little picture-in-picture box appears over the scenes as they narrate, which is kinda annoying. Granted, I like the information Donner and Wenk shared, but there should have been an option to also watch the scenes on their own.
Also included is an alternate ending that the back of the box labels "shocking." Actually, it is the original ending according to Donner and Wenk, and admittedly it is a surprising climax -- I won't ruin it for you, but it certainly would not have been a feel-good conclusion. Very dark.
Note that the standard DVD side also allows you the option to watch the alternate ending reinserted back into the main feature. This is frustrating, because here we have what it is supposed to be the latest in cutting-edge home theater technology -- HD DVD -- and not only does that side of the disc have no extra features, but you can't even watch the film's original ending in HD! Warner, what gives!?
Rounding out the weak supplements is the film's theatrical trailer.
I liked '16 Blocks,' but didn't love it. It certainly is one of Richard Donner's better films in recent years, but I felt that Bruce Willis was miscast. As for this HD DVD, it is another disappointing combo release that includes extras only on the standard DVD side of the disc. At least the video quality delivers, but I don't know if that's enough to recommend this one for a purchase unless you're a diehard Donner or Willis fan.