If you're among the many film nerds rather bummed out about the rock-bottom status of A Good Day To Die Hard and you need something to wash the taste out of your mouth, the likely scenario would be to watch a Die Hard movie. But say you just watched all of them in the run up to the new film, what then? There exists another movie, released to little fanfare and poor box office just under seven years ago, that is not only a superior Bruce Willis action drama but arguably is a better "true" Die Hard sequel than the actual four Die Hard sequels. To be fair, I liked the three prior official sequels, so this isn't the place to tear them down. But for those who want a kind of alternate universe Die Hard sequel, one that arguably operates as a plausible and emotionally compelling 'final Die Hard' movie, as well as a just plain terrific action drama, I officially recommend Richard Donner's 16 Blocks.
The plot of 16 Blocks is painfully simple. Detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is assigned to escort a jailhouse snitch downtown for a 10:00am court hearing in downtown New York City. It's a simple job for a burned out cop, just a quick trip to the court house and then Jack can go home and drink some more. But simple turns complicated when the would-be witness Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) is very nearly murdered right in front of Jack. Complicated turns into impossible when Jack discovers that Eddie is being brought down to the courthouse to testify against several police officers, including Jack's ex-partner (David Morse). This chance encounter has awakened something in Jack, something his fellow officers thought was long ago buried in a tidal wave of booze and self-pity. The chase is on as Jack drags his would-be prize through the crowded city streets desperately attempting to get Eddie to the courthouse alive.
Without going into details, the film doesn't wallow in non-stop violence or outlandish stunts. The action sequences are all the more intense because of their plausibility. None of these cops are action heroes and the periodic sloppiness of their gun fights or armed stand-offs only adds to their authenticity. But what makes the film sing as more than a ground-level genre exercise is the quality of the dialogue. This Richard Wenk screenplay is absolutely character-driven, giving emotional weight to what could be a somewhat generic action scenario. Bruce Willis has fine chemistry with Mos Def and Def plays his two-bit criminal as a complete human being. He is not there for comic relief and he is not a 'magical mystical negro' guiding Willis to a better life. He is simply a decent guy who fell into petty crime and sees this as his one chance out. What follows is a genuinely thoughtful and surprisingly emotional journey for both parties.
This is not a film which bases its impact in bloodshed or explosions, but rather the choices that individual characters make to the situation unfolding before them. I love that everyone involved acts like adults at all times, and that the all of the characters make the smartest decisions possible at every turn. I love that the film doesn't climax with a massive action sequence, but rather a heartfelt and revealing conversation between two major characters. The film has story to tell right up to the end and Donner finishes the picture with an unexpectedly touching grace note. 16 Blocks is a remarkably satisfying motion picture, a high-quality meat-and-potatoes entertainment. This is, at the moment, Richard Donner's last film, and if he never works again I suppose it will be a worthwhile career caper, a big studio genre film embedded with his trademark humanism and optimism.
Come what may, I've always viewed the film as a metaphorical 'final Die Hard' entry, with a more plausible look at John McClane's post-Nakatomi Plaza life and his late-in-the-game redemption. This would-be McClane didn't go from one outlandish adventure to the next, but rather had one glorious moment that did little to stall his inevitable downfall. In fact, it's ironic how similar this film is in both bare-bones plot and the overall theme to Live Free Or Die Hard, which was released a year later. Like McClane, Jack Mosley can't turn his back on wrongdoing occurring right under his nose because he's just "that guy". If you squint your eyes just a bit, you can easily view this fine action drama as a proverbial 'real world' sequel to the first Die Hard. I'd argue it's a better film than the actual sequels, but that's neither here nor there. However you choose to view 16 Blocks, it's still a terrifically underrated drama that deserved and still deserves a wider audience. If you're trying to wash the taste of A Good Day to Die Hard out of your soul, pop in Richard Donner's 16 Blocks.