That Willis Smirk Saves 16 Blocks

In the pantheon of trash passed off as filmmaking today, Bruce Willis movies are no better than the rest—and most of the time, a great deal worse. At least one, the legendarily abominable Hudson Hawk, remains one of top 10 lousiest flicks ever made, and he has another one coming up called Lucky Number Slevin (no, it’s not a typo) that is every bit as loathsome as all your worst nightmares rolled into one.

But now let’s concentrate on something called 16 Blocks, which is the violent new Bruce Willis movie of the week at a shopping mall near you. There is always another violent new Bruce Willis movie somewhere. In the Bruce Willis oeuvre, 16 Blocks is almost bearable—heavy emphasis on the word almost.

At 8:02 a.m. on a bright Manhattan morning, one of the NYPD’s worst cops—a drunken, washed-up, burned-out, bleary-eyed casualty with a hangover and a gimpy leg named Jack Mosley (Mr. Willis, with a bad hairpiece and a bulging gut made of Velcro)—is on his way home to pass out when the precinct captain orders him to escort a prisoner (rapper Mos Def) to a grand-jury appearance at the Criminal Courts building on Centre Street, 16 blocks away. The man in custody, as Hollywood screenwriting would have it, has witnessed a murder committed by the cops, the grand-jury session ends at 10 a.m., and a number of forces are working overtime to ice the witness before he spills the beans and lands half of the NYPD in striped suits that do not come from Fashion Week at Giorgio Armani.

The rest of the movie is about the two hours it takes the two men to get to the courthouse, and the contrived and preposterous things that happen to them on the way. In a traffic jam the likes of which we haven’t seen since 9/11, the prisoner never stops talking, and with Mos Def doing a comic impersonation of Tiny Tim through his sinus cavity, the cop is not the only one he drives crazy. No wonder he stops to buy a bottle of Canadian Club, leaving the babbling loony in his back seat, vulnerable to assassination.

Suddenly crooked cops turn up from every alley to kill the prisoner and cover their traces by making it look like suicide. The most vicious of the poisonous cops turns out to be Jack’s ex-partner for 20 years and onetime best friend (David Morse). He’s trying to cover up for all of his fellow cops who have been profiting from extortion, robbery, drugs and homicide inside their own precinct. In one shootout after another, Jack (miraculously sober by 9 a.m.) breaks all of the rules, kills two cops himself and flees on a subway that deposits them in Chinatown. The camera tracks them through elevator shafts, Chinese laundries, kitchens and incense shops, across rooftops and construction sites, and on a runaway city bus surrounded by what looks like every law-enforcement officer in New York, all of them bloodthirsty and corrupt.

The whole thing ends with a shootout in front of the Manhattan District Attorney in the marble halls of the Criminal Courts building, where it appears to be too early for any security guards to show up for work, but not for the grand jury to go home with a key witness to offer the testimony that will send an important government case to trial. Equally ludicrous is why Jack suddenly rats on all of his fellow cops out of a guilt complex only a Hollywood screenwriter could justify. In the most absurd scene of all, despite the fact that he has killed dozens of people and destroyed millions of dollars in city property, Mr. Willis confesses as one of the crooked cops himself, saves the dignity and reputation of the NYPD, and becomes a hero to the entire city. Mos Def goes free (full of bullet holes, but never mind) to open a shop in California that bakes birthday cakes.

Idiotic, for sure, but what saves 16 Blocks is Richard Donner’s slick direction and the occasional flash of humor you get in most Bruce Willis flicks, whether it’s in the script or not. He can scarcely say a line without smirking. This is a good thing, as well as an act of self-protection, because how can you laugh at a man who’s so busy laughing at himself? I guess you could call Mos Def’s adenoidal performance a comedy routine, but I couldn’t understand a word he said. Neither the worst movie nor the most logical, it’s about how two men change, in 16 blocks. I was ready to change theaters, in 16 minutes.

Hold Your Fire

A vastly more rewarding two hours can be memorably spent at Joyeux Noël ( Merry Christmas), a French and German collaboration that is profound, beautifully made and deeply touching, as well as one of this year’s five Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign-Language Film. Not your typical war film, it nevertheless says more about the futility of war and the humanity of the people who reluctantly fight wars under their government’s orders than any film since Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.

It chronicles the true events that occurred on Christmas Eve 1914, when German, British and French troops in World War I lay down their guns, put their language barriers and political differences aside, established an impromptu and totally unauthorized truce on the western front, and celebrated Christmas together. Magnificently written and directed by Christian Carion, it has the power to move whole nations to tears.

Carefully composed shots depicting the preparation for war precede the actual conflict in the trenches, as British lads leave their schools and churches and families, German artists are interrupted in the middle of a theatrical production and forced to turn in their costumes, a Frenchman leaves a pregnant wife behind without ever seeing his new baby. As autumn turns to winter, the French and the Scots on the front lines are hoping to get home in time for Christmas, while on the German side, losses are heavy and reinforcements never arrive. At German headquarters, plans are underway to send Christmas trees to the battlefield, decorated crudely with lights that flicker across the decimated horizon.

Then, on a snowy Christmas Eve, a miracle happens: The sound of bagpipes from the Scottish trenches fills the quiet night. The French cannot believe their eyes when pine branches decorated with white Christmas candles emerge above the German foxholes. They pass bottles of French wine to German soldiers who, a few hours earlier, were firing on them. A professional tenor (Benno Fürmann) who left the opera to join the German Army voluntarily, accompanied by his lover, a Danish soprano (Diane Kruger) who has joined him for Christmas by special dispensation from the Kaiser, lift their voices in “Silent Night” to raise the morale. The Scottish bagpipes join in. One by one, the soldiers emerge, cautiously extending handshakes.

The French commander (Guillaume Canet), a decent man homesick for his wife and new baby, exchanges French champagne for German schnapps. They are joined by the bipartisan tabby cat from a nearby farmhouse who has befriended them all. They sing carols, play football and, although nobody surrenders, three separate countries declare a ceasefire for one night only in what the history books now refer to as a heavenly inspired détente. When the first light of Christmas Day appears, the junior officers in charge of their units agree to return the bodies fallen behind enemy lines so that each side can bury their dead properly in fields of honor. Scenes of all those dark figures dragging bodies across the white snow and digging graves is genuinely wrenching, as a Red Cross stretcher-bearer and unofficial priest (Gary Lewis) conducts an improvised midnight mass in no-man’s land that unites the soldiers of three Christian nations. In the afternoon, a game of football is played by teams that used to hate each other, illuminating the common ground all soldiers share. They are human, after all, and as people living under a higher power, they have things in common that military commanders don’t always understand. Above all, they welcome peace, even if only for 24 hours.

Mr. Carion’s movie is a heartfelt and civilized attempt to unite this kind of compassion under God in a film of stunning visual power and poignant emotion. A few cynical London critics have objected to the film on the grounds that the Brits are the only ones who don’t come out of the experience at all well, thanks to two spectacularly unsympathetic characters. One is an embittered boy who breaks the truce to avenge the death of his brother, the other a pompous, blithering English bishop (Ian Richardson) who tongue-lashes the chaplain for insubordination and heresy, then conducts a service of his own, demanding the extermination of all Germans—men, women, children, civilians and combatants alike. But in fact, the men of 1914 were punished by the church for praying for peace instead of victory.

The film is extremely forceful in its treatment of the aftermath, in which outraged senior officers, politicians and church leaders combined to denounce the truce as “unpatriotic” and went so far as to destroy the evidence of it. When word of the Christmas front-line fraternization reached the commanding officers, they were livid. Adolf Hitler, who was only a poor corporal at the time, was furious. Admiral Winston Churchill was indignant to the point of apoplexy. (Proof has been documented in many books and articles, and in the archives of the British War Museum, most recently in the British newspaper obituaries for 109-year-old Scot Alfred Anderson, the last person to remember the truce of 1914.)

Cynics may also grouse about the suspicious, right-wing conservative German officer (Daniel Brühl) who turns out to be Jewish, and the good-natured and playful Frenchmen, who seem to have no enemies at all. The most valid reservation is certainly the fact that Joyeux Noël is romantic and apolitical. At any rate, the film strikes new resonance in the conflicts of 2005, with sympathetic leaders on the ground and cold, heartless commanders one link above in the chain of command. The score, by Philippe Rombi, is one of the richest and most stirring compositions of the past 20 years. If nothing else kicks you in the heart, the music will.