Lean times. When an action flick by vintage hack Richard Donner can generate the feeling of an old master's offering, it's a sign to either give up the big screen for good, or settle for some honest efficiency in a genre of degraded techno-cynicism. In any case, 16 Blocks works up enough small-scale excitement on film to suggest that the veteran hand of The Omen and Lethal Weapon (and, uh, Timeline) can at least provide an artisan's vigor to an arena increasingly littered with digital smudge and grabby in-gaggery. Never one to stray far from the Hollywood plan (or from whichever project has brought in the most cash in the past), Donner goes for the salt 'n' pepper sparring of his most popular series, announced with an interracial slugging match playing in the TV as schlubby NYPD detective Bruce Willis goes to fetch Mos Def, the chatterbox witness (and multiple felon) he's been assigned to chaperone to the Manhattan courthouse. Willis stops to get a new dose of liquid breakfast, and Mos Def is left in the car, handcuffed; somebody pulls out a gun and the first of the movie's modest stylistic victories is scored, a head crashing through the window, urban space reconstructed with a slow-mo 360° pan, so you can spot where the bullets are flying from. "A nothing thing," the hero was told by his superior, but of course bad guys want the witness dead, and the bad guys, much like last year's Assault on Precinct 13 remake, are unsavory members of the police department.
Itself a remake, albeit an uncredited one (Eastwood's The Gauntlet casts its shadow from the pre-credits flashforward), 16 Blocks sets up the trajectory in the title, no time wasted. Willis remains the most interestingly aging Hollywood leading man, his graying dome entering the frame before him, pot belly protruding from uniform, the smell of alcohol in the harsh morning light; an easy part but cannily filled, an admirable straight man to Mos Def, whose nasal nattering, at first an extended In Living Color bit, gradually sketches in his future "business plans" for a birthday cake bakery. "You can change," he says, and the plot offers personal redemption to both; "lines were crossed" for Willis, who gropes for forgotten moral borders before reaching for an ancient shotgun, deciding not to look the other way when David Morse, his crooked partner, comes for the witness. Donner is in the meantime seeking redemption of his own, staging tight chases through Chinatown's rooftops and basements, with Willis and Morse trading slugs with only a wall separating them ("Well... this is awkward"). The soon-to-be-barricaded bus is just around the bend, the city's entire police force ready for a Lumet salute; Donner keeps the handheld shots close to the vest and finishes off with a satisfying twist. A product, sure, yet the fun of the movie's lean genre calibrations comes less from lowered expectations than from renewed hopes for that vanishing species of the American cinema, the B-movie done with shrewd aplomb.
From 16 Blocks to Block Party for a kinder New York, courtesy of Dave Chappelle. The comedian, gold-plated since his Comedy Central hit show found its way into the hearts and wallets of bong-hitters everywhere, remains MIA, though his 2004 concert bash, documented here by Michel Gondry, should grab the attention of fans while The Chappelle Show gets (hopefully) ready for another season. The man himself is first spotted, loudspeaker in hand, broadcasting the coming attractions for his free, all-star Bed Stuy block party while a high school marching band performs behind him, conceptual wackiness typical of the video-weaned Prankster College, of which Gondry is a card-carrying member, along with Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham, poster boys for the deadend of postmodern cleverness. Thankfully, Gondry's handling of the material here is predominantly unassertive, unless one counts the ping-ponging between preparation, rehearsal, and the concert itself to be an extension of the temporal pretzeling of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Anyway, Chappelle, limber and amiable, gives away golden tickets for the event back at Dayton, his Ohio hometown, putting starstruck locals at ease by exclaiming "pussy hole" into the camera. A couple of black kids are so elated to go that they resisted kicking a racist's ass, a thirtysomething white store clerk wonders if she should pack a thong, and the marching band from the opening images crams inside the bus headed to Brooklyn.
On to the show. Mos Def is back, minus 16 Blocks nasal whine, now playing smooth straight man to Chappelle, one of assorted voices from the hip-hop world coming together under the overcast Brooklyn sky -- Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Common, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, ChestnuTT and The Roots are among the others, with appearances by Big Daddy Kane and Fred Hampton, Jr. as surprises, and Lauryn Hill reunited for the first time in years with The Fugees. "The concert I have always wanted to see," goes the bash's easygoing jester, who links comedy and music as twin instruments for bringing people together in celebration over their racial, cultural, and economic barriers. The neighborhood is gritty but chummy, the event thrown in front of a dilapidated cathedral (whose kooky white owners confess to not being big on rap music) and close to the day-care center where Biggie Smalls once upon a time took refuge; the gathering gives off an inclusive hum, the best way for a non-fan of hip-hop such as myself to have a blast with superb performances of "Jesus Walks," "Get Em High," "Back in the Day," "You Got Me," "Boom," and "Killing Me Softly With His Song." Hampton gets audiences to give the power-to-the-people raised fist, Badu tears off her gigantic Afro wig mid-performance and dives into the crowd, and Wyclef Jean does a hopeful "President" to the marching band kids after the curtains have fallen; Neil Young: Heart of Gold gazes beyond a man's mortality, yet Block Party, resoundingly stuck in the Now, is no less soulful.
What would Mama Madea say of the Mos Def character in 16 Blocks or the liberal swearing of the Block Party numbers? Negative African-American images, so off with the belt for a good ass-smacking, of course. During the eponymous gathering of Madea's Family Reunion, the camera laments black nature's fall from grace by focusing on youngsters playing dice and dancing to music, all improper in Tyler Perry's eyes, and he's got Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson to lend their Amens. Perry is the writer-director, and, pace Jerry Lewis, the "total filmmaker," controlling both sides of the screen, in drag as Madea and under makeup as Uncle Joe; he's also, following the smash success of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Hollywood's brand new box-office hit dispenser, half a dozen of his plays already signed to be transplanted for the screen, Perry doing the directing from now on. What good is it to say that Perry makes no difference between stage space and the film screen? Or that the gray zones separating good from evil here are even narrower than the transitions from raucous chitlin vaudeville to Very Special Moments? Or that, despite Tyler's judgmental contempt (or because of it?), the despicable characters of Blair Underwood and Lynn Whitfield remain more interesting than boringly virtuous Lisa Arrindell Anderson and Boris Kodjoe? Audiences will go anyway and anyone dissing it will be immediately tagged a racist, yet give him this -- no less than Dave Chappelle, Perry brings people together, though excuse me if I prefer humor to mediocrity.
Reviewed March 9, 2006.