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Movie Review: David Morse in 16 Blocks

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SPOILER ALERT

The director Richard Donner, veteran of years of TV series work before achieving big screen success with The Omen (1976), has made a few enjoyable movies — notably Scrooged (1988), starring Bill Murray in a raucous updating of A Christmas Carol, and Conspiracy Theory (1997), starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts in a romantic variation on a government-paranoia thriller — but 16 Blocks isn’t one of them. It is, however, so conventional an example of the romance of redemption that I’d be tempted to show it in a film studies class, although I’d be hoping the students wouldn’t like it.

Bruce Willis plays Jack Mosley, a New York City cop who, with his partner and others in the department, has crossed legal lines when “necessary” to get convictions. Jack is utterly demoralized by these corrupt practices — he shuffles through his work days, not bothering to disguise his drinking. Jack is such an open wreck he’s now the guy they call in to babysit an inactive crime scene until the experts get there. (The last man out reminds Jack not to touch anything, and he doesn’t once he’s located the victim’s booze and turned on the A/C.) Jack is on his way home one morning when he’s assigned to take Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from lock-up to the court house, a distance of 16 blocks, where Eddie is to testify before a grand jury.

This is more active duty than Jack is entrusted with anymore, but the cop who was supposed to do it got stuck in traffic. Long story short, Eddie is set to testify against a cop, and the dirty members of the force, fearing that what he says will bring them all down, have planned to kill him. The cop who got stuck in traffic was supposed to pull the trigger so at the last minute some hit men had to be rushed in.

What happens instead is that Jack, out of the loop, saves Eddie from the hit, and becomes the other cops’ problem himself, though he doesn’t realize it right away. In the first breathless moments after the shoot-out, Jack holes up in a bar with Eddie and calls for help. Frank Nugent (David Morse), Jack’s former partner of 20 years, ostensibly comes to his aid, but when Frank unctuously says he’ll take charge of Eddie and Jack can do what he usually does (i.e., look the other way and keep drinking), the worm that’s been eating Jack’s guts finally turns. Just as Eddie is about to be whacked by one of the cops, Jack shoots the shooter and takes off with the twice-rescued Eddie through the crowded downtown streets.

Initially Jack, though disgusted with the cops and himself for betraying their mission, assumes that Eddie, the beneficiary of his daring, is ironically unworthy of it, an inevitable recidivist. As the day wears on, however, Jack discovers that Eddie was wrongfully accused of the crime that put him in prison; nor did he know that the man he was testifying against was a cop (which is irrelevant except to audience members likely to allow cops wide latitude in dealing with criminals and who might otherwise think of Eddie as a snitch).

Eddie is the product of foster care and longs to make good by opening a birthday-cake bakery. He’s a hard-luck kid, with amusingly elliptical thinking and reactions and a trick nasal voice that Mos Def uses comically to slur the rhythm of his scenes. As Eddie, Mos Def is as much on his own adolescent-misfit’s planet as Jerry Lewis was, and, like Lewis’s well-meaning simpletons, he’s both cranky and a sweetie.

Frank is the point man for the killing, so now the former partners are pitted against each other, with Frank (wrongly) assuming that Jack is long past being able to pull off what he’s attempting. Frank and Jack have three major confrontations: when Frank shows up in the bar to take care of Eddie; when they’re trapped in a basement on opposite sides of a wall with guns pointed at each other; and when Jack has spirited Eddie to safety and shows up in the court house garage intending to testify himself, though it will besmirch the department (in the process of cleansing it, of course) and even send Jack himself to prison.

I go into this amount of detail not because it’s interesting, but to lay out the conventional symbolic structure of the plot beneath the pseudo-naturalistic frankness about big-city police forces. Simply put, Jack is a sinful knight in need of redemption. The main villain is his partner, which is to say his fraternal twin: in the course of the movie Jack, the part of the soul that can be saved, has to reject and battle against Frank, the part of the soul that can’t. The soul’s struggle against the temptation to do evil is thus personified and externalized in the good cop-bad cop showdown.

Jack and Frank, both of them criminal cops, are paired like the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus. One of the malefactors rails against Jesus while the other rebukes his fellow (“Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss”) and is saved (Luke 23:39-43).

Eddie, the comic innocent, represents the virtues that require martial defense in a world in which the author of evil freely sows temptation, even among those sworn to do good. The last scene shows Jack blowing the candles out on a birthday cake that Eddie has made for him and on which Eddie has spelled out in icing a list of people who have changed for the better, including Eddie, Jack, and Barry White. It’s not a birthday cake, of course, but a rebirthday cake. By saving Eddie, Jack has saved himself.

Eddie doesn’t have to die to redeem Jack, which is another sign you’re in the pre-modern realm of romance, the genre that fulfills the audience’s wish for a hero capable of fantastically effective action against the spiritual Enemy. In a modern movie set among figures serving the executive branch of a democratic government, this is a bad fit. What makes romance great, when it is great, is that it’s a symbolic demonstration of deeply and widely held spiritual values.

The problem here is that the values according to which Jack is reborn aren’t spiritual, really, they’re political, and thus more amenable to reasoned debate than spiritual parable. When Frank defends himself in the subterranean parking garage of the court house (here the symbolic pits that lie beneath true justice) by saying that he covered up the accidental death of a witness he was intimidating because the guy was going to blow an otherwise legitimate case, his point of view is not Satanic, it’s pragmatic in a way that offends our civilized notions of fair play, and our republican wariness of unbridled government actors, both of which underlie our procedural restrictions on the state’s police power.

Frank’s attitude is the converse of the view that it’s better to let a guilty man go free on a technicality than to subvert the rights of the accused, and I imagine his attitude has a gut appeal to a lot of people. We resist this appeal, however, because we also understand the arguments in favor of separating the functions of investigation and enforcement on the one hand and adjudication on the other. We don’t want the cops evaluating the evidence produced by their own work and deciding which witnesses will be heard by the tribunal.

It’s too easy to imagine that a combined police-judicial department could achieve a 100% conviction rate at the expense of the “niceties” of procedure and would lead on a regular basis to what we see in 16 Blocks — the self-protecting murder by cops of a witness for the greater good of fighting crime. Unlike followers of a totalitarian regime, we don’t want the state to win at any cost just because it’s the state.

If there were any drama here it would not be romantic, but tragic: the story of a man who becomes uncivilized doing the dirty work of defending civilization, and Frank, not Jack, would be the protagonist. The problem with 16 Blocks as a romance, and hence a work of fantasy-projection entertainment, is that the role of Jack, a dispirited soak of a cop with a gut like a saddle bag and a game leg, doesn’t draw on what makes Bruce Willis a star. Willis is best as an unassuming character with drive, cunning, and endurance we might not guess at.

He has the ultimate warrior’s adaptability but he’s the opposite of a barbarian in that he’d never vaunt. It’s enough for him to know he’s got what it takes and he communicates to us minimally — with a glimmer in his eye, a smirky half-smile, muttered wisecracks that other characters don’t hear. His charisma is cumulative and light-spirited; he’s turned bluff manly reticence into a comic style.

The script of 16 Blocks tries to give Jack complexity by implicating him in the corruption, but Willis doesn’t have the actorly skills for that kind of complexity. Playing a man who has crumpled morally, Willis becomes physically unprepossessing, a semi-animated hulk. You can imagine, perhaps, Fredric March taking on the padding and the guilty air and merging them with a character (even if in a highly theatrical way). March would maintain his actor’s wakefulness; Willis doesn’t. At the same time, Willis is an honest actor, and so he really seems depressive, until, that is, the plot requires him to suddenly show preternatural alertness and ninja skills. We’ve seen Jack boozing before 9:00 am but the effects burn off instantly once the movie needs him to function as an action hero.

It looks like Willis was snookered by the Hollywood mentality that always casts the star as the good guy (even though it’s a role for which any number of actors would be better suited — the Nick Nolte of Affliction could have buried a fire in Jack; Jeff Daniels could have made his goodness palpable through the rot; the Tim Robbins of Mystic River might have made him creepily tormented). Frank, conceived not as a melodramatically diabolical schemer but merely a perverted enforcer of the law, has all of Jack’s complexity with the butch rock-steadiness that Willis has shucked for the movie as well. The role of Frank, in fact, provides David Morse with enough material to give a major performance.

Morse is not only beefily magnetic, he also offers a more nuanced sense of what corruption does to a man. He even chews gum in a way that suggests the tension of carrying on knowing he’s violated the values he’s sworn to uphold. Morse suggests a whole structure of rationalizations and denial, while still functioning as the villain of the piece. He even makes Frank more believably self-loathing than Willis as Jack, and the effort it takes to keep on top of a rotten game (as opposed to sousing yourself into semi-oblivion) gives him the confident masculinity that holds this kind of “ballsy” action picture together.

Moreover, Morse’s Frank displays qualities that thoughtful people will realize we need in a police force, seeing as not all criminals are child-like sugarpusses who express themselves in cake icing. We don’t want rules bent, of course, but we rely on these men whose executive decisiveness charges their physicality. In this way Frank is like the character Meserve played by Sean Penn in Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War (1989), which is a similar kind of redemptive romance. In Casualties of War Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), an idealistic soldier, has to overcome enormous amounts of internal and external pressure to accuse and help convict his dark double Meserve, who leads their squad in the recreational rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl after one of their buddies is killed in a Viet Cong attack. (Eriksson doesn’t participate but he doesn’t intervene, either.)

Earlier the battle-tested Meserve had saved the greenhorn Eriksson’s life, and throughout we see what makes Meserve a great soldier, even as we see that he has snapped and is now obeying orders from his id. Meserve undergoes a comprehensible but disturbing transformation; it’s one of Penn’s great outré performances. Morse is more naturalistic — Frank is not a grotesque apparition out of romance, he’s a man who is bearing down on himself, and those around him, with crushing stress because he has to believe that what he’s doing is the right thing to do.

My boyfriend liked Mos Def best, and his role and eccentrically stylized delivery do make the movie seem as if it isn’t just a straight shot to Jack’s triumphant salvation. For me, however, the movie works, to the extent it can be said to work at all, because of those three confrontations between Willis and Morse. In the final face-off the former partners — spiritual twins — lay out their opposing views of how they’ve soiled the practice of law enforcement. Willis is crippled by miscasting, but Morse would be formidable opposition for any actor. It isn’t just his physical presence; his timing and delivery are at the concert level here.

Frank operates on a straightforward principle and in this confrontation he ends up repeating the same line to all of Jack’s objections, each time louder. Morse makes Frank’s rage to think of himself as a good cop specific to the character — as an actor he takes on the force of a bull-necked cop. He makes Frank’s insistence bone-rattling. The movie isn’t good enough for him, but all the same Morse manages to give as fine a performance as the material allows. Finer.

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About Alan Dale