They make for such a natural fit, it's surprising that the director of Lethal Weapon and the star of Die Hard had never worked together before. Richard Donner and Bruce Willis finally team up for the 2006 action thriller 16 Blocks, which may not redefine the genre the way that some of their past projects had but nevertheless offers some decent suspense and thrills with a minimum of dopey plotting or flagrant stupidity. Considering the current state of action cinema, that makes it about better than average these days.
Willis stars as Detective Jack Mosley, an over-the-hill cop who's spent more time battling depression and a drinking problem than battling the bad guys. Sporting a significant paunch and a generally haggard appearance, the character is something of a departure from the star's usual action hero roles. Assigned the menial task of transporting a prisoner to the courthouse, Mosley can't even make it the 16 blocks down the street without breaking for a pit stop at his favorite liquor store. Of course, being the type of movie that this is, we know that the character's limits will be tested and that the simple prisoner transfer won't be quite as easy as it appears. A great deal of dangerous people, including several of Mosley's close friends on the police force, don't want this witness to testify in what turns out to be the centerpiece trial of a dirty cop scandal.
Rapper-turned-actor Mos Def plays the other half of this salt-and-pepper buddy duo, and your enjoyment of the movie will be largely dependant on whether you find his annoying chatterbox character (a role that feels like it may have been originally written for Chris Tucker) hilarious or irritating. The guy just can't stop talking, spouting a constant stream of unwanted blather during even the most inappropriate of situations. He turns sympathetic as the picture goes on, but it takes a while to get there. David Morse turns in a strong, nuanced performance as the primary villain, a former partner of Mosley's who doesn't want to see his friend caught in the middle of this mess but believes the ends justify the means. The dynamic between these characters is well-developed and unusual for movies of this sort.
Donner directs 16 Blocks tightly and efficiently, providing solid excitement during the cat-and-mouse chases and bigger action scenes. At his best, he's a capable craftsman, if not exactly a visionary. This is one of the director's better recent pictures, lean and taut in contrast to the flabby and overwrought later Lethal Weapon sequels. The script by Richard Wenk contributes greatly to that, staying smart and character-driven when it could have devolved into empty spectacle like so many other recent action movies. 16 Blocks doesn't break any new ground, but treads its path confidently and delivers on exactly what it promises.
The HD DVD:
16 Blocks debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video as one of their overpriced hybrid combo discs with the HD DVD version on one side and an unwanted standard DVD version on the other. Why the consumer should be expected to pay extra for something they don't need or want eludes me, but I suppose it's the job of marketing people to convince us all that it's a great idea.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (except in cases like this where the disc specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The 16 Blocks HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The HD transfer looks great. The picture is extremely sharp and detailed, to the point where you can see the seams in Bruce Willis' hairpiece. The photography has a very naturalistic color style that doesn't necessarily pop off the screen like some movies but nonetheless looks vivid and pleasing. Black level is always solid with excellent shadow detail, lending the film a great sense of depth. Although the 118-minute movie has been compressed onto a single-layer disc side (as all the combo discs to date have been), there are absolutely no visible digital artifacts. It's a slick and glossy image that may not be as showy as some other discs out there, but almost feels like you could walk up to it and step into the movie.
Flipping the disc over, the standard DVD version on Side 2 is noticeably less detailed and lacks the vibrancy and depth of the HD DVD version. The DVD also has significant compression artifacting errors, clearly visible in the opening Warner Bros. logo and throughout the movie. In this case, I do believe that the compression problems are the result of squeezing the movie onto a single-layer disc side (the DVD format's MPEG2 compression is less forgiving in this respect than HD DVD's VC-1 codec). The movie is also available for sale on a plain DVD edition that I expect is authored on a dual-layer disc and probably has fewer artifacts of this sort.
The 16 Blocks HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is encoded in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. The track is a pretty standard action movie mix with good dynamic range, sharply recorded gunshots, and lots of zippy directional effects ricocheting around between the rear speakers. Bass response is good though not house shaking. If I have any complaint it's that the dialogue is mixed low and tends to get drowned out by the much louder sound effects and music. Still, it's a very professional and satisfying soundtrack that delivers what it needs to.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - Quebecois French DD+ 5.1.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
The HD DVD side of the disc has no bonus features at all. You'll have to flip over to the standard DVD side for those. The supplements offered are identical to those found on the regular DVD-only release.
No interactive features have been included.
- Alternate Ending - Available either seamlessly branched as part of the main feature (in anamorphic widescreen with a finished 5.1 soundtrack) or independently in the supplement section (in cruddy non-anamorphic letterbox with a 2.0 temp track), this downbeat version of the climax presents a more ambiguous look at the David Morse character but is generally inferior to the version ultimately chosen. The copy in the supplement section is preceded by a video introduction featuring Richard Donner and screenwriter Richard Wenk.
- Deleted Scenes - Approximately 15 minutes of deleted footage is stretched out to a 20-minute featurette with introductions by Donner and Wenk and forced running commentary. All scenes are again presented in non-anamorphic letterbox. It's hard to tell if any of these scenes were any good because the writer and director keep talking over them.
- Theatrical trailer - In nice-quality anamorphic widescreen. This is a pretty good trailer but does give away too many plot points.
My feelings about the misguided DVD/HD DVD combo format notwithstanding, 16 Blocks is an entertaining thriller with very good High-Def picture quality. It's worthy of a recommendation despite the unnecessarily high list price.
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