16 BLOCKS - HD DVD review

Willis salvages what is essentially a routine thriller and elevates it to something worth watching.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

To quote from Warner Bros.' publicity blurb for the HD DVD and DVD Combo: "Play it in your HD DVD player. Play it in your Standard DVD player. Play this disc wherever you want to. One side gives you the thrilling new world of high definition. The other side can play on every one of your old DVD players...in the bedroom, on your computer, in the car. All with one disc."

Well, I'm not too sure about playing it in the car; presumably, somebody might watch it in the back seat, but I'd not advise the car's driver to try watching it while pushing through traffic. Anyway, I'd say the folks at WB are doing all right with these Combo discs because this is their third Combo release in as many weeks. In addition to the Combo format, Warner Bros. also make "16 Blocks" available in a standard-definition widescreen and a standard-definition fullscreen. Appropriately, the Combo contains only the widescreen version of the movie.

I've read any number of times about how people credit Bruce Willis with resurrecting the action thriller, or at least reinventing it, with "Die Hard" in 1988. I'm not sure I entirely agree, but there is no questioning that for the past two decades Bruce Willis has been right up there with Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and maybe Mel Gibson as one of our leading action-adventure stars.

Still, everybody gets older and everybody changes. Even Sean Connery (moment of awed and reverent silence) has slowed down in recent years, although at seventy-three he showed us he still had it in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Anyway, I mention all this because in 2006's "16 Blocks" Bruce Willis, now in his early fifties, plays an aging cop. Have the years slowed him down? Not on your life.

That doesn't mean the character Willis is playing here isn't different, though. He's New York City Police Detective Jack Mosley--old, tired, balding, gimpy, depressed, and alcoholic. What's left? He's a loser who has given up on life. Until one day he gets the opportunity "to do one good thing."

First, he's assigned a routine duty: To pick up a petty crook named Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from the city jail and run him over to testify before a grand jury. The trip is a mere sixteen blocks and should take little more than an hour. It's an ordinary job until Jack discovers that Eddie is about to testify about a bunch of crooked cops in his own department, and that those very cops, lead by Jack's ex-partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse), want Eddie dead. Jack decides to do one thing right in his life. He will not allow his fellow policemen to murder this man.

And so for the next ninety minutes we get an extended chase, Jack and Eddie against what seem like all the police officers in New York. The situation quickly becomes desperate when Jack is forced to shoot one of the policemen, making him a "cop killer" wanted all over the city. Sixteen blocks were never so long, with Jack having no one to turn to, no one to trust. Well, at least that's the premise. The fact is, this is one of those plots where a simple telephone call to the right person would have solved everything. But we don't want to look too closely at details in an action-adventure thriller, just suspend our disbelief and go along with the story.

What the movie has going for it is Willis's determination as the character, a guy we can believe in, a guy we can appreciate for his fortitude, even if it appears to have come late in the character's life. The movie also has director Richard Donner at the helm, the fellow who gave us "The Omen," "Superman," "Radio Flyer," "Timeline," and all four "Lethal Weapon" films. He keeps the action moving at a healthy clip, and he wastes no time getting right down to it. Once things get rolling, some of the circumstances may seem redundant, but you can't say the excitement doesn't get pretty intense.

Yet, what the movie doesn't have going for it may outweigh its merits. Like, it lacks any humor whatsoever. Unlike "Die Hard" or the "Lethal Weapon" flicks, "16 Blocks" is unrelentingly somber, start to finish. This means we have to accept all the more readily the events as factual, and given the exaggerated nature of some of these events, that becomes more than a little difficult. So we face the dilemma of Willis providing the realism while the script provides the clichéd melodrama. It may sit as an uneasy conflict with many viewers.

What may also make some viewers uneasy is Mos Def's character. This is not a typical buddy picture like "48 Hours" where we've got a straightlaced white guy and a wisecracking black guy. Def's Eddie is at once a serious character and a motor-mouth who won't stop talking, not even when he is supposed to be hiding from the baddies and keeping as quiet as possible. Then just when we've made up our mind that he's a completely hopeless idiot and annoying as all heck, he goes and does something brilliant or endearing. It's a strange characterization.

There is a lot of noise in "16 Blocks" and ultimately a lot of motion, but there is actually little tension or suspense until the very end. It is mostly a matter of waiting for the inevitable to play out. Nevertheless, there is probably enough noise and motion to keep plenty of action fans happy, so who am I to criticize a picture that does what it sets out to do?

The standard-definition video starts out looking rather dull and muted, perhaps to establish the film's tone. But it brightens up soon enough, and thanks to WB's high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer it looks pretty good for the major part of the film. Definition is fine, grain is hardly an issue, colors are realistic, and detailing, even in darker areas of the screen, is clear.

In HD-DVD, the high definition pays off further. It is obviously better defined, with even more sharply delineated colors. Brightness levels and black levels are solid. There is not quite as much veiled or smokey an appearance at the start as in the SD version; and moiré effects, shimmering lines are a thing of the past.

Understand, though, that we are comparing high definition with the very best of standard-definition transfers. Warner Bros. have been doing good, high-bit-rate, anamorphic SD transfers for years, and the SD version of "16 Blocks" is no exception. So if you don't notice a night-and-day difference between the HD and SD picture quality, understand that you are comparing the best to the best. However, if you have a chance to compare the two versions side-by-side as I did in separate players, WB having sent me not only the Combo disc to review but the standard-definition widescreen disc as well, you'll see the HD improvements. Switching to SD, the picture, as good as it is, goes comparatively soft and flat.

The audio engineers provide the movie with a solid, modern, high-tech sound track, with the Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction on the SD side of the disc doing it justice, and the Dolby Digital Plus reproduction on the HD-DVD side going it one step better in even cleaner, clearer sound. In both versions, you'll find a wide front-stereo spread, a strong transient impact, fairly substantial mid-bass, and excellent surround information. City noises, traffic, crowds, and background music make their presence known in the rear speakers, as well as gunshots and ricocheting bullets. The only thing is, I found that the slightly crisper DD+ sonics made Mos Def's nasal droning more annoying than ever. Oh, well....

The disc makes a lot of the alternate ending the filmmakers shot. You can watch it by itself with a brief introduction or as a part of the regular movie. Director Richard Donner tells us it is the ending they intended for the picture all along, before they gave the movie its theatrical ending. So, he says, the ending you see in the theatrical cut is really the "alternate" ending. OK. Then there are close to twenty minutes' worth of deleted scenes, with commentary by the director and screenwriter Richard Wenk. The problem here is that the scenes are not indexed, meaning you have to fast forward if you want to play any favorites again, and then you still have Donner and Wenk talking through them. You even get to see them talking to you in a wholly unnecessary on-screen insert. Meanwhile, since they're talking over the deleted dialogue, you get to read what the characters are saying in captions. The extras are found on the SD side of the disc only, which duplicates the regular edition of the standard-definition disc.

Things finish up with twenty-five scene selections (but no chapter insert); a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The HD-DVD side of the disc also provides pop-up menus, a zoom-and-pan feature, English captions for the hearing impaired along with English subtitles, and WB's timeline of where you are in the movie. The disc is housed in an Elite Red HD case, and both the HD and SD versions played perfectly from beginning to end.

Parting Thoughts:
Frankly, I didn't care for either of the filmmakers' endings to the movie, one schmaltzy, the other gloomy. Nor did I care overmuch for the film's action, since once it gets started it becomes somewhat repetitious. However, I did care for Willis; like Harrison Ford in "Firewall," Willis salvages what is essentially a routine thriller and elevates it to something worth watching, at least once. The HD picture and sound are icing on the cake.


Film Value