I don't tend to go to the cinema these days — films are released so quickly on DVD now, and I see no reason to fork out a handful of money just to listen to other people cough into their mobile phones. So film reviews on this blog are likely to appear a few months after the film was actually in the cinema. Sorry about that, but hey.
So anyway. The Gauntlet is a seriously good film — strangely little known for one of the great Eastwood films. So I was interested to hear that a remake was underway. And then I heard the big idea behind it: instead of having to get a witness safely across a couple of states while the mob and the entire police department try to kill them both, the hero was only going to have to go sixteen blocks. That seemed to me like a very nice idea: concentrate and intensify the action. Bruce Willis playing the Eastwood role — another good idea. This film was elbowing its way to the top of my must-see list. And then I discovered that Richard Donner was directing. Hmm.
It's not that Richard Donner's a bad director. He's made some very good films. But he's made some dodgy films, too. And, even in his good films, he has this penchant for conveying action and excitement by getting the whole cast to shout at each other at once. It kind of works in the Lethal Weapon films, but combine it with high-pitched voices — as in The Goonies — and you get a noise that never fails to induce a migraine. And the Lethal Weapon films, though great fun, are kind of frivolous — not a tone that suits The Gauntlet. He likes a bit of silliness, a bit of slapstick. On the other hand, he's great at conveying camaraderie, making actors really seem like they're the best of friends, and he prefers a good honest explosion and a squad of stuntmen to CGI any day. So he might have been right for this film. And might have been quite disastrously wrong.
So I bought it. And it was a great relief and pleasant surprise to me to discover that 16 Blocks is by far the greatest film of Richard Donner's career.
I just cannot fault this. Willis gives an astounding performance as the washed-up alcoholic cop: looking totally hungover most of the time, then occasionally flashing into bright-eyed alertness, like his younger self is fighting to get out. David Morse is as good as ever, if not better, completely underplaying his character's menace to seem like a genuinely reasonable guy. Mos Def, who up till now I'd only known as a rapper, is excellent too. The script is superb: it takes the essence of the original and retells the story on its own terms, coming up with new motivations for the characters, a different back story, and a better ending — the weak ending being the only real problem with The Gauntlet. And the direction is perfect: the photography's beautiful, the pacing and tension are just right, and Donner hasn't asked his actors to conduct half their conversations shouting over gunfire — in fact, everyone's very quiet most of the time. I cannot think of any way in which this film could be any better.
Donner could, though. The DVD includes the alternative ending that they shot but didn't use, providing an object lesson in how people capable of true excellence are often incapable of quality control. Donner and Richard Wenk, the screenwriter, introduce it by explaining that the ending in the film is what was in the script, but that, while shooting, they saw an opportunity to improve the ending, offering, they say, more empathy. Empathy? The alternative ending, in the space of a few seconds, turns Morse's character from a thoroughly believable bad guy into a silly plot-driven caricature, turns the ending from a beautiful bit of understated realism into an over-the-top cartoon, and is not even as well shot. Looks like it took some disgruntled preview audiences or pushy producers to tell these guys to stick with the work of genius and ditch the poorly-thought-out hackery. Funny old world.
In short, watch this film. If you didn't already, six months ago.